Longform.org's Guide to 9/11: Five unforgettable stories from Ground Zero.

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Sept. 9 2011 10:25 AM

The Longform.org Guide to 9/11

Five unforgettable stories from Ground Zero.

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Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For a daily selection of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

Warning: This article includes profanity.

September 11, 2001. Click image to expand.
Ruins of the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001

On the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, here are a collection of stories from Ground Zero, each one published while the attacks were still disturbingly fresh in the minds of Americans:

"We Got Down to the Outside and It Was Like an Apocalypse" Michael Ellison, Ed Vulliamy, and Jane Martinson • the Guardian • Sept. 12, 2001

An account of the chaos published the following day:

"One fire team from Brooklyn emerged from the still smoking debris of a building on Lower Broadway having lost one of their number to the crumbling of the second World Trade Tower—the faces now blackened, eyes red with smoke, strain and exhaustion.

Richard Clayton, thick-set but worn out, had twice disobeyed orders to rest during the day but now sat on the kerbside of Gold Street, and hung his head between his knees after ripping off his mask. He said: 'Some dead, some alive, most almost alive... one was just a little girl's dress with something that looked like a dead little girl in it ... what's with us,' he said, 'that people want to come crushing a little girl under a fucking building?'

The scene around him looked like the world's end—fire trucks and ambulances grinding their way across a white lake of dust and debris from which the pall of smoke still rose a few blocks away. The fireman and paramedics caked in soot, their tunics torn, broke the eerie stillness by alerting each other with commands and cries urging one another into the pyrexia. 'This,' said nurse Adam Cowes, 'is what hell looks like, in case you'd ever stopped to wonder.'"

The Real Heroes Are Dead James B. Stewart • The New Yorker • February 2002

The life story of Rick Rescorla: immigrant, war hero, husband, and head of security at Morgan Stanley/Dean Witter, which occupied 22 floors in the south tower.

"Survivors of the attack pressed themselves on Susan to offer their thanks, and many called after the service. Susan felt compelled to try to piece together what had happened that day, and asked people if they had seen Rick. She heard many accounts in which Rick, always wearing his suit jacket and tie despite sweating profusely, kept people marching down the right side of the dark staircase, singing into his bullhorn, as firemen and rescue personnel raced up. At one point, he had nearly been overcome by the heat, and had to sit down on the stairs. But he kept singing or speaking reassuringly. 'Slow down, pace yourself,' he told one group. 'Today is a day to be proud to be an American.'

Susan learned that at some point he had used his cell phone to report that all Morgan Stanley employees were out of the building. But one of the last to leave, Bob Sloss, told her that, just ten minutes before the building collapsed, he had seen Rescorla on the tenth floor. When Sloss reached him, he told Rescorla to get out himself. 'I will as soon as I make sure everyone else is out,' Rescorla replied. Then he began climbing back up into the building. That was as far as Susan could get. She tossed at night trying to imagine what happened next. Had Rick heard and felt the beginning of the building's collapse? Had he known what was coming? These thoughts kept her awake, night after night."

The Miracle Survivors Steve Fishman • New York • September 2003

The story of 16 people, 12 of whom were firefighters, who somehow made it out alive despite being inside the north tower when it collapsed:

"Surviving is a freakish experience. These people really should be dead. ('That's the day I should have died,' Buzzelli says sometimes.) And since they're not, then they should be thankful. They lived a miracle. They should walk through life full of joy. And yet these people—and their families sometimes more so—seem afflicted by a persistent guilt, guilt for having lived."

The Falling Man Tom Junod • Esquire • September 2003

In the days after 9/11, a photo of an unknown man falling from the South Tower appeared in publications across the globe. A search for the story of that photograph, and the man it captured:

"In the complete sequence of photographs, truth is subordinate to the facts that emerge slowly, pitilessly, frame by frame. In the sequence, the Falling Man shows his face to the camera in the two frames before the published one, and after that there is an unveiling, nearly an unpeeling, as the force generated by the fall rips the white jacket off his back. The facts that emerge from the entire sequence suggest that the Toronto reporter, Peter Cheney, got some things right in his effort to solve the mystery presented by Drew's published photo. The Falling Man has a dark cast to his skin and wears a goatee. He is probably a food-service worker. He seems lanky, with the length and narrowness of his face—like that of a medieval Christ—possibly accentuated by the push of the wind and the pull of gravity. But seventy-nine people died on the morning of September 11 after going to work at Windows on the World. Another twenty-one died while in the employ of Forte Food, a catering service that fed the traders at Cantor Fitzgerald. Many of the dead were Latino, or light-skinned black men, or Indian, or Arab. Many had dark hair cut short. Many had mustaches and goatees. Indeed, to anyone trying to figure out the identity of the Falling Man, the few salient characteristics that can be discerned in the original series of photographs raise as many possibilities as they exclude. There is, however, one fact that is decisive. Whoever the Falling Man may be, he was wearing a bright-orange shirt under his white top. It is the one inarguable fact that the brute force of the fall reveals. No one can know if the tunic or shirt, open at the back, is being pulled away from him, or if the fall is simply tearing the white fabric to pieces. But anyone can see he is wearing an orange shirt. If they saw these pictures, members of his family would be able to see that he is wearing an orange shirt. They might even be able to remember if he owned an orange shirt, if he was the kind of guy who would own an orange shirt, if he wore an orange shirt to work that morning. Surely they would; surely someone would remember what he was wearing when he went to work on the last morning of his life...."

Lost and Found Colson Whitehead • New York Times • November 2001

An essay on the old and new in New York:

"Maybe we become New Yorkers the day we realize that New York will go on without us. To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves. The kid on the uptown No. 1 train, the new arrival stepping out of Grand Central, the jerk at the intersection who doesn't know east from west: those people don't exist anymore, ceased to be a couple of apartments ago, and we wouldn't have it any other way. New York City does not hold our former selves against us. Perhaps we can extend the same courtesy.

The twin towers still stand because we saw them, moved in and out of their long shadows, were lucky enough to know them for a time. They are a part of the city we carry around. It is hard to imagine that something will take their place, but at this very moment the people with the right credentials are considering how to fill the crater. The cement trucks will roll up and spin their bellies, the jackhammers will rattle, and after a while the postcards of the new skyline will be available for purchase. Naturally we will cast a wary eye toward those new kids on the block, but let's be patient and not judge too quickly. We were new here, too, once."

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @ longformorg. For more great science and nature writing, check out Longform.org's complete archive.

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