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Archive for December, 2012

Goodreads tells me that I’ve read just four books since Gone Girl – nearly two months. And three of those I read in the last 10 days. Life gets busy sometimes. But I still managed to reach my original reading goal of 60 books for this year, and I just upped it to 70 (which, I realize, might be a couple of books too many).

On my reading pile for the next few days, I have Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake, and Jacqueline Winspear’s The Mapping of Love and Death. Although I didn’t love Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (her detective), I liked her writing well enough to try another book. I was also influenced by other blogs which had nice things to say about the series.

I recently finished Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953 – in which James Bond makes his debut)I am not a James Bond fan, and probably never will be. I just saw the book on the husband’s pile and thought why not. Though far less poignant, and certainly less intense, Casino Royale reminded me of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007). I also read Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West that chronicles Shin In Guen’s escape from one of North Korea’s infamous political prison camps. Although aspects of day-to-day life (or what passed for life) at the camp in many ways resembled that in concentration camps from half a century ago, Shin had no yardstick to assess the quality of his life – he was born in the camp, the product of a camp-sanctioned reward marriage. Camp life was mostly hunger, snitching, and survival.

…while Auschwitz existed for only three years, Camp 14 is a fifty-year-old Skinner box, an ongoing longitudinal experiment in repression and mind control in which guards breed prisoners whom they control, isolate, and pit against one another from birth.

Shin escaped by what one can only describe as a series of remarkably lucky breaks. While escape meant that Shin could finally get his hands on the grilled meat that he had dreamt of all his life, assimilation continues to be a struggle. Escape from Camp 14 is very different from the only other account of life in totalitarian North Korea that I have read – Pyongyang (2007), the account of a French-Canadian cartoonist/animator in the country’s capital.

But the book I have the most to write about is 102 minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (2005) by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

102 minutes

Over a decade later, the memories of that Tuesday morning are still raw, fresh, and excruciatingly painful, even for someone who watched the drama unfold on television half a planet away. Media – first person accounts, books, and the very graphic footage of the towers’ demise, as well as the transcripts of the 911 calls made by those trapped within, continue to grip our hearts with deep anguish. My interest in the book was purely to remedy my somewhat ignorant understanding of the events of the day, although I was aware that it would be a painful exercise. 102 minutes is not quite the account I was looking to read (which I would have realized had I paid close attention to the subtitle). Gleaned from interviews with survivors and rescuers alike, and from emergency radio, phone and email transcripts, 102 minutes is Dwyer and Flynn’s attempt to reconstruct what happened inside the towers after the planes struck them, from the time the North tower was struck at 8:46 am, to when it collapsed at 10:28 am (the South tower, though struck second at 9:02 am, collapsed first at 9:59 am), a total of 102 minutes. Dwyer and Flynn’s take is that, acts of tremendous valor notwithstanding, far more people died that fateful day than those who had to:

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City reports that 2, 749 people died in the attacks on New York. Of these, 147 were passengers or crew members on the two flights; in the buildings, no more than 600 people were on floors where the planes hit, close enough to be killed immediately. Another 412 of the dead were rescue workers who came to help. The rest, more than 1,500 men and women, survived the plane crashes, but were trapped as far as twenty floors from the impact. Like the passengers on the unsinkable Titanic, many of the individuals inside the World Trade Center simply did not have the means to escape towers that were promised not to sink, even if struck by airplanes.

Dwyer and Flynn argue that the fates of these trapped men and women were sealed years ago when the towers were designed – with insufficient stairways and inadequate fireproofing, and by the long-standing malaise that characterized the relationship between the Police and Fire Departments. The towers were not built for total evacuation, rather only for evacuation of the few floors that were affected by the fire with the assumption that the fireproofing would contain the fire damage, and any fires would simply burn themselves out. Even with the haze of shock, fear and confusion taken into account, “failures of communication, coordination, and command” doomed the lives of all those desperate men and women, and the heroic firefighters who rushed in to rescue them.

Nothing can diminish the culpability of the hijackers and their masters in the murders of September 11, 2001, which stand beyond mitigation as the defining historical truth of the day. The ferocity of the attacks meant that innocent  people lived or died because they stepped back from a doorway, or hopped onto a closing elevator, or simple shifted their weight from one foot to another. That said, simply to declare that the hijackers alone killed all those people gives them far more credit as tacticians than they are due. The buildings themselves became weapons, apparently well beyond the designs of the hijackers, if not their hopes; so, too, did a sclerotic emergency response culture in New York that resisted reform, even when confronted again and again with the dangers of business as usual.

Dwyer and Flynn’s narrative certainly captures the alarm, the panic, the confusion of those wretched minutes, and its tragically cruel aftermath. While hundreds of people were desperately trying to reach 911 and family, and wetting handkerchiefs with milk and water from flower vases to help them breathe through the smoke, firefighters were rushing up in a misguided attempt to save them.

A firefighter’s turnout coat, pants, boots, and helmet weight twenty-nine and a half pounds. The mask and oxygen tank add another twenty-seven pounds, bringing the basic load to fifty-six and a half pounds. Firefighters in engine companies also carry fifty feet of hose, called a roll-up, with aluminum fittings on each end. That weighs thirty pounds, increasing the load to eighty-six and a half pounds…In the ladder companies, some firefighters carried an extinguisher and hook, thirty-eight pounds, while others toted an ax and the Halligan tool, an all-purpose pry bar, with a weight of twenty-five pounds. One firefighter from each unit also carried a lifesaving rope, 150 feet long and weighing twenty-two pounds. They all carried one or more piece of equipment: a radio, the Motorola Saber, which weighs one pound, seven ounces.

Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer climbed 38 floors to reach the impact zone on the 78th floor of the South Tower, sometimes covering a flight of stairs in just  twenty-one seconds. Five minutes later the tower collapsed.

The Architectural Fact Sheet of the Freedom Tower at One World Trade center mentions safety features, including extra-wide pressurized stairs, additional stair exit locations at all adjacent streets and direct exits to the street from tower stairs, and a dedicated stair for use by firefighters.

Six more days, and six more books to achieve my goal.

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