Mention 9/11 in a social setting, and you are virtually guaranteed someone will bring up one of the various conspiracy theories about the event. Like the Kennedy assassination, and the grassy knoll, 9/11 folklore is already firmly entrenched in our collective psyche. …The towers were felled by controlled demolition, the Pentagon hit by a missile. George W. Bush knew in advance. It was the military-industrial complex, ad nauseam…
Hugo Chavez has now added these claims to his political slapstick routine. Danny Glover and Chavez’ gaggle of leftist sycophants were eating it up at a recent New York rally.
Something is at work here, something deeper and more pervasive than a search for answers. It is a search for comfort, making otherwise unbearable events tolerable–so long as they fit into our predetermined dualistic worldview. We humans like to know who the bad guys are. We like our villains wearing black hats, and our heroes riding white horses. The incredible moral complexity that exists in the real world is threatening to even those who understand it intellectually. Like the fear of death that drives religion–for those who have not made the pursuit of critical thought the centerpiece of their life–this moral stew of gray is simply overwhelming.
Truth is much more difficult to wrap our heads around than the cartoonish broad brush strokes painted by the charlatans of conspiracy. In this case, the truth is pretty much what we all already know. We were attacked on 9/11 by religious extremists who were very effective in using our own modern technology against us. They leveraged the weaknesses of our open society — both the openness of access to airliners, and the shortcomings of construction techniques and rescue procedures — to murder large numbers of our citizens. This was an act of political theater as much as an act of war.
Al Qaeda calls 9/11, the “Battle of New York.” If it was a battle, it was a surprise attack, and America lost. That much is clear. But in the heat of the battle, there was tremendous heroism.
This is what 102 minutes is about, the title referring to the time between when the first plane hit the first tower, and the second tower collapsed. Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn have penned a tragic and non-fictional adventure story, about people fighting for their lives under unimaginable conditions. But it is also about staggering ironies, where the difference between life and death could have been a footstep, a decision not to get on elevator, or a simple word of communication. The biggest untold story of 102 minutes is how the patchwork of construction regulations and poor coordination between rescue agencies became a much bigger killer than the attack itself.
For example, no one escaped the upper floors of Tower one. All three stairwells in that building had been severed. The doors leading to the rooftop were locked, and there was absolutely no planning or coordination for any type of rooftop rescue. This combination of factors killed around 1,000 people who might otherwise have had a chance.
In Tower two, groups of people who had already descended to the lobby were told it was safe to go back to their offices. This doomed hundreds of others as the second plane hit. Though tower two had a functioning stairwell, few knew about it, and many who died were simply waiting in their offices for help to arrive.
After the collapse of Tower two, no one was able to communicate to the hundreds of firefighters still in Tower one to give them an evacuation order. This is directly attributable to inter-agency fighting over radio frequencies and communication methods. Capable radios were sitting in boxes on shelves and were not used when they could’ve saved hundreds of lives.
But these ironies pale into insignificance compared against the very personal stories of how ordinary people became heroes getting their office mates to safety. This is why I made a point reading this book on the fifth anniversary of the event. But also, I really wanted to better understand the story about the buildings themselves. For me, the loss of these architectural wonders was nearly as great as the loss of life. This may sound crass, until you consider that the towers themselves represented the life efforts of thousands. When they were destroyed, a piece of these great citizens who built the towers died too.
Something else died that day, and it was a certain engineering hubris. We recall the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and how ‘God’ confounded its builders. This was yet another message the fundamentalists were trying to send, like a medieval skeleton reaching its bony hand through time: “don’t get too cocky with your modernity, we can always find a way to use it against you.”
It wasn’t only engineering hubris that brought down the towers that day, it was also greed. The layout of the towers provided far more rentable space than other designs. The financiers needed to make this happen, and they found engineers who would go against their own better judgment — agreeing to the use of the flimsy floor trusses without fireproofing. These decisions ultimately brought down the buildings.
102 minutes is startling in its detail, its authors having interviewed over 300 eyewitnesses and escapees, having perused countless photographs and recordings. Every event and escape during those 102 minutes is heavily documented, with 35 pages of footnotes at the end of the book. Much of this documentation eerily comes from beyond the grave, having been lifted from the dying phone conversations and e-mail messages of those were ultimately killed in the collapse.
But to me the highest value of this book is that it drives the ultimate Silver Spike into the heart of the nonsensical conspiracy theories. 9/11 is one of the most heavily documented events in history. If anything happened other than as observed, it would have been glaringly obvious to the thousands of people who escaped the buildings, and it would be contained in the comprehensive photography and video archive generated on that fateful day.
[Any conspiracy theory would also have to hold up to engineering scrutiny, which they do not. Click here for a thorough debunking.]
What has not been widely reported, and is well documented in 102 minutes, is that the towers were observed to be buckling by police in their helicopters for many minutes prior to the ultimate collapse. There were also several chilling phone calls from people on the buildings’ upper floors reporting that the “ceiling was caving” on them. Additional photographic evidence shows that several of the upper floors were “red hot,” that rivers of molten aluminum ran down the sides of the buildings, that some upper floors sagged as low as the middle of the windows on the floor below, many minutes before the final collapse.
Each floor in the trade Center was capable of supporting its own weight, plus the weight of two additional floor segments. As soon as there were more than two additional floor segments on top of the already weakened spandrel trusses, there was no place for the buildings to go, but all the way down.
102 minutes was a gripping read. It could be the ultimate antidote to the self-serving 9/11 conspiracy theories which insult our intelligence, undermine the values of observation and evidence, and dishonor the dead.