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September 11, 2001 was one of those days that changed you. Without a doubt, no matter where you were or what you were doing, you remember that day. We are still in its aftermath.

It recast me too.  That morning I was at work in a Brooklyn three-floor building five miles from the Towers, across the East River. A friend called before 0900 to tell me to look out a west-facing window.  I watched for some seconds, black smoke pouring from near the top of one of the towers. Concluding it must have been an accident, maybe a small plane or a helicopter, I got back to work. Shortly after 0900, the friend called again, frantic, and told of reports that two hijacked planes had crashed into the towers; more hijacked planes were in the air, she said. I returned to the window, and now much more smoke, yellowish gray, blanketed both Towers. For me, the rest of the day was a blur, inconceivable sights in the distance across the river, swirling rumors of horrors.

We all have our take on that morning, even hundreds and thousands of miles from lower Manhattan. Mostly I don’t talk about 9/11 much, and I’ve not yet gone to the museum located there now, likely I’ll never go. I’ve mostly avoided reading about that day although I have read widely about the wars it spawned.

I made an exception when I was asked to review Jessica Dulong’s Saved at the Seawall, a re-issued version, paperback. In a preface added to this version, DuLong writes that “only after years of avoiding conversation about my time at Ground Zero did I finally make my peace with the human need for September 11 stories. Chronicling catastrophe necessarily creates a distance, a remove.”

She interviewed at least 75 people who were involved in the immediate aftermath, some on the island but many more at the seawall and farther out in the harbor, the sixth boro, on boats.  A list names all the boats that evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from lower Manhattan, but her book chronicles what occurred from the perspective of rescuer and rescued alike.

Flipping through pages as I write this review, I notice that 150 pages into the book, she’s recounting events not even two full hours after the first plane hit. The details are palpable, and told with skill.

In the epilogue, DuLong states that reflecting on rescuers that day has “reconstructed my faith in the human soul.” Their acts “struck me less about heroism and more about pragmatism, resourcefulness, and simple human decency. If you have the wherewithal, you step up.”  I’d see it as a variation on the international code, written and unwritten, that mariners have a duty to rescue those in distress at sea;  in this case, when the USCG issued a call to “all available boats,” mariners in the harbor responded and rescued people in distress on an island in distress.

I’m grateful Jessica DuLong interviewed the folks in this book, recorded their experience before memory could distort it, and then meticulously reconstructed that morning from dozens of perspectives. I was especially surprised to see a half dozen people I know interviewed in the book, people whom I’ve never heard talk about that day.

I highly recommend reading this book.  You can order it from the publisher here.

Previous book reviews can be seen here.

If you want the International Red Cross view on this, click here.

 

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