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Thread: In the Words of the Survivors - Report from Ground Zero

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    In the Words of the Survivors - Report from Ground Zero

    In the Words of the Survivors

    Report from Ground Zero,' says firefighter-turned-author Dennis Smith of his new book, is 'a straightforward accounting of a terrible time in our lives and how we got through it'

    By Mary Voboril
    STAFF WRITER

    March 19, 2002

    AN ABRUPT and peculiar quiet, devoid of ambient sound, followed the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Trapped inside were a handful of survivors, some of whom blinked at the gritty black void and wondered: Am I still alive?

    Astonishingly, they were, and they tell their stories in unflinching, sometimes grisly detail in "Report from Ground Zero" ($24.95, Viking), by former firefighter Dennis Smith.

    Theirs is the ultimate inside story:

    Capt. Jay Jonas, Ladder Co. 6, is in a stairwell of Tower One when the crippled skyscraper begins vibrating like a 110-story tuning fork. As upper floors rapidly implode, it is "almost like I'm being bounced like a basketball," Jonas says. "I am literally bouncing off the floor, like if a train derails and the wheels are hitting the railroad ties.

    "It was that kind of boom, boom, boom, boom in loud succession." Then, jagged steel beams begin "twisting around you like they were twist ties on the loaf of bread. It is a painfully loud screech of steel....

    "I think, This is it. It's over. This is how it ends for me. I'm done."

    As Fire Lt. Mickey Kross hustles toward Tower One, he sees a body on the plaza. It has no feet. Inside, Kross is told that "elevator pits were full of bodies." From stairwells, Kross says, "mobs of people were coming out, [some with] skin hanging off." When the tower collapses, there is a horrific roar and "a sense of tremendous energy.... The wind is powerful," and an invisible force tries to rip off his helmet. As Kross jams his helmet down, "I started getting hit with things. Something heavy came down on me, because it cracked my flashlight. I figured, Well, that's over. I'm a dead man."

    Port Authority officers Will Jimeno and Dominick Pezzulo are buried in rubble in the underground concourse between the two towers, Pezzulo in the push-up position. A weightlifter, Pezzulo bursts free. Then come sounds of a second collapse. Jimeno watches Pezzulo stand and back up. Jimeno says, "A huge cinder block the size of a dining room table comes down, and it hit Dominick right across the legs, and it slams him down." Pezzulo is knocked into a sitting position. He is mortally wounded. "I can hear him gurgling," Jimeno says. "He says, 'Willy, I'm hurt bad.' ... I know now he is leaving us. He's dying.

    "'Just remember me,' he says. 'I died trying to save you guys.... I'm going,' he says. I see him now putting up his arm. He has a gun in his hand, and he fires a shot with his gun, off in the air.... A last-ditch effort to say 'Hey, we're here,' and then he slumps over, dead."

    "Ground Zero" is part **** history, part day-to-day narrative and, in one remarkable section, a minute-by-minute chronology of the lobby command center after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Of nearly 3,000 who die, 23 are New York police, 37 are Port Authority police and 343 are firefighters.

    And who better to chronicle this cataclysmic day of infamy than Smith, 61, a firefighter-turned-bestselling author. In 1972, Smith gained instant fame by writing the still-in-print "Report from Engine Co. 82," which recounts the South Bronx firehouse scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In those days, Smith's beleaguered unit might respond to 100 calls in a single weekend. (Engine Co. 82 lost no one on Sept. 11, according to a spokesman for the New York City Fire Department.)

    Retired after 18 years of firefighting, Smith stayed close to the trade, founding Firehouse magazine and an array of firefighter-related enterprises. Most of his 11 books deal with firefighting. To write "Ground Zero," he put aside a half-finished novel on the same theme.

    On Sept. 11, Smith dons an old Engine 82 T-shirt, Fire Department sweatshirt, jeans and heavy hiking boots and makes his way to the firehouse nearest his Upper East Side home. Firefighters commandeer a crosstown bus, and Smith boards it with them, volunteering to help in rescue and recovery. On the bus, a fire lieutenant tells his crew, "We'll see things today we shouldn't have to see" - and that is Smith's experience for all but two of the next 55 days.

    He first arrives at Ground Zero half an hour after the second collapse. All is monochromatic gray, utterly devoid of color. A few shaken, dust-felted firefighters move like statuary. Others struggle to place the midsection of a human body into a body bag.

    Eventually, Smith works the bucket brigade, hauling out debris. He also works recovery. In a yellow bucket labeled "human remains" he places a scalp, an ear, an arm, a severed foot still in its sock. He copes with the stench of human decay, which, at one point, knocks him back like a G force. He coughs the World Trade Center cough, suffers dust-injured eyes.

    And through it all, Smith is a careful and perceptive reporter. During five- minute breaks at Ground Zero, he takes notes, in tiny script, on triple-folded sheets of paper. And he begins taping interviews, many with firefighters he already knew.

    "They all talked," Smith says, sitting in the elegant home he shares with his wife, Katina. "Some put it off for a couple of weeks. But then they called me back and said, 'maybe now'...."

    They had had time to reflect. Apart from the human cost, the devastation was so profound, one notes, that "I never saw a file cabinet, never saw a desk, a chair, never saw a telephone, never saw any type of office furniture. There is no glass. It just disappeared and had become part of this fluffy white or gray dust."


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    Survivors Stories - continued

    One of the writerly difficulties Smith faced in "Ground Zero" was just how graphic he should get.

    "I was of very mixed minds about this," Smith says, glancing away. Eventually, he accepts the counsel of a friend from his Engine Company 82 days. "He said that to sanitize all this does a disservice to it. It is what it is." And so, "I resolved to write it the way I wrote it."

    Among those interviewed, a common topic is that of World Trade Center workers who jumped. Ultimately, Smith says, many "came to take their own lives rather than be sacrificed at the hands of terrorists."

    Yet the decision to jump, rather than be burned alive, caused unspeakable difficulties on the ground. One firefighter is struck and killed, and those in the command center must cope with the highly unnerving sounds of human bodies striking a hard and unyielding surface at 120 mph. It is a startling noise, Deputy Fire Chief Pete Hayden tells Smith, "like a bomb going off, when they hit. I mean, it was huge."

    Eventually, Smith writes, the sound becomes part of the environment; "hardly anyone reacts to it.... The bangs of the falling bodies in the plaza are now regular, and almost syncopated." The sharp sounds, though not their frequency, are apparent in the "9/11" documentary broadcast on CBS on March 10.

    The idea of writing a historical account of the events of Sept.11 and the aftermath occurred to Smith about a week after the attack. He wanted to "record the efforts of great men and great women," chiefly the first responders, so many of whom died. He says, "We were talking about numbers all the time. That's unavoidable, but I want the names to be remembered, every single name. I knew that if I wrote a book and put the names in the front of that book, those names would last forever." Listed are names of 403 lost firefighters and police.

    "Ground Zero" often is a compelling, even gripping narrative. It is accomplished storytelling, marked by the precision and polish of good writing. Yet Smith intended "Ground Zero" to be neither a form of entertainment nor an artistic endeavor. It is, he says, "just pure, undiluted reportage ... a straightforward accounting of a terrible time in our lives and how we got through it....

    "This would not be an easy book for some people to read. But I hope that families who lost loved ones in this attack will come away from this book with a more meaningful understanding of it all."

    The first printing of "Ground Zero" is 100,000 copies, and Smith is donating at least $100,000, plus speaking fees, to the New York Police and Fire Widows' & Children's Benefit Fund.

    While some believe that families of fallen rescue workers have been well compensated, "I don't think that," Smith says. Firefighters, he points out, climbed into harm's way as everyone else moved to safety. "They went up, not so much to fight the fire, in my opinion, but to find those who needed help in getting out," those too stunned or burned or hurt to walk out on their own.

    "I saw their faces, in a video, as they went up, and I could see the apprehension deep in their eyes," Smith says, referring to the video shown in the "9/11" documentary. "They knew they were in an environment with no safeguards like fire escapes or ladders or elevators." It was, he says, "profound courage. To put a dollar figure on what this is worth to the families of those who perished is not rational."

    For "Ground Zero," Smith produced 620 pages of manuscript in three months - a formidable and remarkable output - then trimmed it to 366 pages.

    "Viking's commitment to get the book out within six months was a compelling reason to sign with them," Smith says of the publisher. He met his deadline "because I had an office and reliable executive assistants and researchers. It could not have been done as I had written my other books, at my desk, sweating in solitude."

    A lawyer friend supplied an office and clerical staff, including transcribers for his taped interviews. Even so, Smith says, "I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The only time I really had free was Christmas Eve with my children." He has five, all grown, and four grandchildren.

    AFTER MONTHS of mulling over the events of Sept.11, he can cite few lessons that could be applied to future high-rise fires. Smith says, "It's in the nature of firefighters to go into buildings that people run out of. I've heard high-ranking officers of the fire department say there needs to be more control, that people who volunteer have to report to somebody and get organized. And I have to agree: It can be better organized. But you're not going to stop these people from going into those buildings.

    "Think of it this way: What do you do at the next high-rise fire? You think firemen are going to say, 'Well, maybe we shouldn't go in'?"

    There were communications snafus, Smith continues, but the evidence shows "there was absolutely calm and prudent and thoughtful management of that emergency."

    The video, one deputy chief notes, reflects a professional operation. "It's eerie, how calm it is. There are calm discussions and people talking about issues and information with bodies coming down all around us."

    Even so, an assistant chief admits, "It was organized chaos, but it was still chaos." And John Lightsey of Hampton Bays, a Manhattan fire dispatcher, tells Smith that he feels guilt "about assigning all those companies at the same time. We didn't follow the rules; we went above the rules. We went ahead and assigned more than was necessary." But a chief, Lightsey says, assures him that the response "ended up saving a lot more lives."

    Concludes former First Deputy Police Commissioner Joe Dunne, in "Ground Zero": "No one made the right move. No one made the wrong move. No one made a critical mistake. No one made an ingenious decision."

    Those who survived, Dunne says, were "fortunate and blessed.... There's no rhyme nor reason why people made it and why people didn't."

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