15 July 2006

102 Minutes

We all remember the details surrounding our lives on the morning of September 11, 2001. The events of that day, mundane or complex, are etched with clarity and precision. Years later it is still possible to recall the shock, horror, dismay, fear, anger, and sadness that accompanied the TV and internet images, the radio updates, and the social commentary. My memory of that day, beyond the images and the feelings of uncertainty they carried, centered on having to retrieve the names of students, alumni and parents who lived or worked in the vicinity of the attacks for the president of the university that employed me. While co-workers were huddled around the television, I was at a computer with a colleague running database queries and double-checking our returns. This was a request that had no margin of error. The sheer number of names we retrieved was astounding – you couldn’t help but wonder who those people were and if they were still alive.

102 Minutes was published slightly over a year ago and it recounts, in horrifying detail, the 102 minutes that elapsed from the moment the first plane stuck the north tower at 8:46am until it collapsed, following the south tower, at 10:28am. Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn covered 9/11 for the New York Times and their comprehensive research is enough to make you wonder, or say a prayer of thanks, that more people didn’t die. Communications between the Port Authority, NYPD and NYFD were all but impossible – you’d think the attack had happened in 1961 instead of 2001 given the level of technology that was deployed and the various departments’ historical unwillingness to address their grievances with one another.

The most disturbing piece of information concerned the overall perception of safety that people had. The buildings were not as safe as people had believed. The common thought was that the buildings could withstand an airplane hit for several hours – but unknown to the majority of the regular workers who inhabited the building, the fireproofing and other safety measures had never been tested. When the towers were originally constructed building codes were changed to accommodate the need to maximize office space (read: $dollars$) at the expense of sufficient stairways and other methods for evacuation. If there’s anything to be learned from this book it’s that you should never, ever, have blind faith that a building is large enough to protect you, or that the fire or police will be able to rescue you. Get out immediately, hit the stairs running, and don’t look back for anything. Only a small number of people who worked at the point of impact or higher made it out of the buildings alive – and they survived only because they operated on those principles.

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