Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

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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On April 20, 1999, four years and one day after Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in Oklahoma City (the date was no coincidence), Columbine stopped being the name of a high school in Colorado and took on a new meaning – a horrifying American tragedy, a deadly school shooting, a massacre. I did not hear about Columbine or the Oklahoma City Bombing until years later, when other school shootings were referred as ‘Columbines’. Or, I might have heard about a shocking shooting on the other side of the world, but the word ‘Columbine’ never really registered. In 1999, I was in high school myself, and can hardly imagine an 18-year old cooking napalm on his stovetop, or having the imagination and brains to envision and plan a massacre, and be consumed with so much wrath as to desire to blow up a school full of people. For that was their vision – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not intend to kill twelve students and a teacher, but wipe out the entire school. Columbine was a bombing that fizzled out.

In a perfect world, Eric would extinguish the species, Eric was a practical kid, though. The planet was beyond him; even a block of Denver high-rises was out of reach. But he could pull off a high school.

They had a plan: A diversionary bomb in nearby park to keep the police occupied while they detonated bombs in the school cafeteria during lunch break (for maximum impact), manned exits to shoot down any escapees, and finally kill themselves. Fortunately, Eric’s bomb making skills were not top-notch and all of the bombs failed to detonate. The guns worked, though. Eric and Dylan shot at students and teachers, killing thirteen and grievously injuring many more, before blowing their own brains out.

Dave Cullen’s account of the shooting, Columbine (2009), was published a decade after the event, fleshed out, he says, from official documents, journals and videos made by the killers, police records, summaries of counseling sessions, and memory of the survivors, with any remaining gaps (and there were some) filled by criminal psychologists. Cullen starts out describing the shooting as it played out from the victims’ point-of -view, and weaves back and forth between Eric and Dylan’s evolution to becoming partners-in-crime, to the aftermath – a stunned community, the media frenzy, the investigation, and the survivors’ lives. Cullen also aims to clear up myths that sprang up easily and abundantly in the hysteria and confusion that followed the incident, and to paint a profile of the killers. Eric and Dylan, he concludes, did not kill because they were part of the ‘Trench Coat Mafia’ (although they did wear trench coats that fateful day), or because they were Goths, or listened to Marilyn Manson, or because they were outcast loners who were bullied by rich, snotty jocks. The killers had no specific trigger, they had no specific target. They dreamed of making a large, indiscriminate kill and ending their own lives.

Eric, Cullen writes, was a textbook psychopath, “charming, callous, cunning, manipulative, comically grandiose and egocentric, with an appalling failure of empathy”. Eric killed for two reasons – “to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it”. Dylan, was depressed, angry, and suicidal. Together, they formed an effective dyad – “the psychopath and the depressive“, a murderous pair who fed off each other.

An angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair, The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill.

Eric’s psychopathy had been simmering for at least two years before the shooting, and he was convinced of his own superiority over the witless idiots all around him. He didn’t snap, but an incident did set his plan in motion: Eric and Dylan were arrested in their junior year for breaking into a van (they’d got into trouble earlier for vandalism and such). Eric’s contempt grew into a seething rage, but, he maintained a cool and charming, even repentant, exterior, as most psychopaths do. Nobody – his family, his psychiatrist- had a clue. Dylan, on the other hand, was painfully shy, but prone to angry outbursts. His parents thought he might be suicidal, but certainly not homicidal.

Cullen devotes a considerable part of Columbine to the post-shooting years. The mourning, the slow recovery, the post-traumatic stress disorder, and the paranoia that seeped into the entire community. Eric and Dylan’s parents were blamed by many for raising killers. But Cullen says that parenting might not be responsible.

It also appears that even the best parenting may be no match for a child born to be bad.

But the parents still faced a horde of lawsuits.

After years of wrangling, most of the fringe cases were dismissed…That left the killers’ families. They wanted to settle. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had insurance. It turned out their home owner’s policies covered murder by their children.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that about home owner’s insurance.

Even mental health specialists are no match for psychopaths – Eric convinced his own therapists that he was contrite and well on his way to turning over a new leaf. So, what should adults look out for?

  • Leakage – Cullen says that 81% of shooters confided their intentions, which were not vague, implied or implausible. “The danger sky-rockets when threats are specific and direct, identify a motive, and indicate work performed to carry it out”.
  • An unhealthy, morbid preoccupation with death, destruction and violence. Repetitive violent fantasies with mutilation, guns, brutality and a vivid imagination

As with other works of journalism, I’ll have to take Cullen’s word that his hypothesis is the product of comprehensive research. Columbine is certainly gripping. And scary. I hope that the any lessons that were learned from the shooting would never have to be put to use.

Other works about true-crime that I (and many others, I’m sure) have read and enjoyed:

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

In True Blood

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