It started out as a typical Tuesday morning in midtown Manhattan. Architect Frank De Martini and his wife Nicole were enjoying a cup of coffee together before the workday got started, talking to friends. Dianne DeFontes, a legal secretary, switched from her walking shoes to her work shoes. Restaurant manager Christine Olender called her mom about their upcoming visit to New York. David Kravette’s wife called him, wanting to cancel their newspaper delivery. Administrative assistant Judith Martin headed up to her office after a last minute cigarette. In all, 14, 154 people were arriving that morning for the start of their workday at 1 and 2 World Trade Center, otherwise known as the Twin Towers.
Until the unthinkable happened. At 8:46 am, 1 WTC (the north tower) was struck by a Boeing 767 headed from Logan Airport in Boston to LAX. At first thought to be an explosion similar to the infamous World Trade Center bombing in 1993, or even a smaller Cessna striking the building, it wasn’t until people on the ground found a very large nose landing gear, luggage, and a flight itinerary to Los Angeles that anyone realized it was a passenger plane. Thus begins Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn’s harrowing, gut-wrenching and morbidly fascinating book, 102 Minutes, which recounts the experiences of the men and women who survived (and didn’t survive) the impacts and collapses of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
Utilizing hours of survivor interviews, email and phone messages, and the subsequent commission investigations following the disaster, Dwyer and Flynn bring us the story from inside the buildings, as men and women just like us made crucial decisions that would later save their lives or take their lives. Once the first plane hit, every second counted. Several people who followed their gut instincts to leave the south tower immediately after the impact on the north tower were met with security guards in the lobby urging them to go back upstairs to their offices, since the problem was localized to the other tower and there was no immediate danger to them. Some did, some didn’t. Many who worked at Euro Brokers, a trading office on the 84th floor of the south tower, whose livelihoods depended on being at their desks, chose not to leave. Many people did not want to be thought cowards by their coworkers. Several people who were on their way down remembered leaving purses and other personal items like baby pictures and car keys behind, and chose to go back up to retrieve them. For hundreds of people, trapped above the impact zones (93rd floor and above in the north tower, 76th floor and above in the south tower), escape was not an option. The impact of the planes either killed them immediately, or blocked the three accessible stairwells that could have brought them to safety. For some, the impact would jam doors in their frames, trapping them in conference rooms and offices. As the smoke and flames increased on the higher floors, these men and women were sometimes driven to make a crucial choice: burn alive/die of asphyxiation or jump from the building. Bodies rained down onto the plaza below, killing one firefighter and hampering evacuation efforts, as the fleeing office workers would need to be directed around these areas.
Even more moving are the stories of those who weren’t paralyzed by fear, or didn’t run for their lives. Many men such as Frank De Martini, Pablo Ortiz, Brian Clark, and Tony Savas, put off rescuing themselves in order to help those who were trapped. De Martini and Ortiz traveled up eight floors above where they were at impact to help free those who were trapped by the rubble. The men were later credited with saving the lives of 70 people in the north tower, at the expense of their own lives. Clark’s efforts to rescue Stanley Praimnath, an executive trapped in the rubble of the 81st floor of the south tower, ended up saving his life. Clark had originally been evacuating with another group before he split off on his own to save Praimnath, whose cries he heard on the way down. Clark and Praimnath ended up at the one unblocked stairwell in the south tower and were able to get out. Clark’s original group did not make it out alive. Tony Savas was rescued from a stalled elevator in the north tower by De Martini and Ortiz, and when given the chance to evacuate, turned it down, as being trapped and rescued from the elevator had given him a “second wind” to help others like himself. He did not make it out before the building collapsed.
Sadly, evacuation efforts were hampered by the inability to grasp the impossible, that the buildings might not stand. Even those who were evacuating were in no particular hurry. No one could comprehend that the towers would fall. In a documentary for the History Channel filmed in January 2001, De Martini went on record saying that the towers were built to withstand the impact of a fully loaded Boeing 707 aircraft. It was not until after the disaster that the construction of the towers themselves was reviewed. To permit the maximum amount of rentable floor space, the buildings were constructed using a lightweight skeleton of steel and trusses. Traditionally, steel building and floor frames were surrounded with masonry to better protect them in the event of fire. However, the Trade Center was built with only spray-on fireproofing to cut costs and keep floor space open. The layer of fireproofing most likely broke away from the steel on the impact floors after the planes hit, leaving the steel exposed to fires and temperatures around 1,000 degrees. By code, the fireproofed steel was expected to stand for 2 hours. Without the fireproofing, the time was much, much less.
Another design flaw that may have cost lives were the escape stairwells. Both buildings were built with only three stairwells that went from the top floor to the bottom floor, again to allow the maximum rental space on each floor, and none of these three stairwells was a ‘fire tower’ stairwell, better protected from smoke and flames. At the time, the Empire State Building had five staircases, a fire tower, half the office space of one of the towers and 8 fewer floors. Because of the locations of the stairwells and the impacts of the planes, many on the upper floors could not get to one of the three staircases. One or two more staircases might have made the difference.
I have shied away from reading books about 9/11, knowing that they would be very sad and hard to read. Yet I could not put this book down, even with tears rolling down my face while reading it. It was so compelling. So many times, I wanted to yell at these people, “JUST GET OUT!! Forget about your purse, don’t listen to that security guard, don’t worry about helping that person, just run for it!”. How sharp and poignant is the vision of hindsight, though. I knew what was coming. None of those people ever thought the buildings would collapse. They thought there would be plenty of time for heroism, to go grab their car keys, to wait for help to arrive. How wrong they were.
I found myself wondering, of all the people I read about, who I would have been on September 11. Would I have been the woman so paralyzed by fear that I could not evacuate? Would I have been the man trapped on the 93rd floor calmly talking on the phone with his wife, reassuring her that everything would be okay when it was more than clear to him that things would never be okay? Would I ever have chosen to jump 110 floors to my death? Would I have been like Frank De Martini, risking my life to help others? None of those men woke up that morning knowing they would be heroes. Would I have listened to the security guard? Would I have run back into the North Tower after the South Tower collapsed like Carlos Lillo did, looking for his wife? Hopefully I will never have to know.
Absolutely, positively, read this book. If not to learn about a tragic piece of history, read it to keep alive the stories of the men and women who were confronted that day with indescribable horrors that none of us can even imagine and will hopefully never have to face. Before I read this book, the lives of those who died were just one ugly and horrifying statistic. After I read this book, I had some names, faces and inspiring stories that helped me appreciate the scope of the tragedy and the lives it affected. Frank De Martini loved old cars, his kids, and, believe it or not, the World Trade Center, where he had worked since 1993 as a construction manager. The kids of his coworkers often took naps on the sofa in his office, and prints of the construction of the WTC were on the walls behind his desk. Any one of us could have been in his shoes. Think of him the next time you are given the chance to do something even slightly heroic, and decide accordingly.