by Margaret Mendel
Like most New Yorkers I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when the 9-11 disaster occurred. It is etched in my memory forever. So much has happened in my life since then I thought perhaps the impact of that day might have lost of its potency.
Not that something so devastating as that event could ever get shuffled too far back in the recesses of memory.
In 2001 two weeks prior to 9-11, our son pulled up stakes, selling almost everything he owned and took off to seek his fortune in Miami, Florida.
It was sometime around 9 a.m. on September 11 when he called from Miami. My husband and I enjoy the quiet in the morning before we go off to work and we hardly ever watch TV or listen to the radio.
“Turn on the TV,” our son quickly responded when I answered the phone. “An airplane hit the World Trade Center.”
From that moment, and for many months to come, life in New York City was turned upside down. Everyone we met either knew someone who had been killed, or had escaped by the skin of their teeth, or a friend had a loved one dramatically affected in one way or another by what had happened.
Sad and horrific stories emerged hourly and the city was left with an unbelievably tragic wound.
It’s been ten years since 9-11. The World Trade Center area is still under reconstruction and controversies continue to flair up from time to time about the memorial. The friends and loved ones of those who died will assuredly feel the pain and loss forever while the rest of us listen, watch and sympathize.
This summer at the Book Exposition of America I met Damon DiMarco, the author of Tower Stories, An Oral History of 9/11. Damon was taking care of his publisher’s booth, Santa Monica Press LLC, owned by Jeffery Goldman. Initially I was interested in learning more about Santa Monica Press, a California publishing house that has been producing an eclectic line of nonfiction books since 1994.
Damon interested me and I wanted to learn more about his book. So several weeks later we met for brunch.
Damon is a charming, dark eyed Italian who says he is miserable if he spends too much time away from his writing. Tower Stories was his first book, and though he had dabbled in writing over the years he hadn’t taken his writing seriously until 9-11.
He does not remember now if it was on 9-11 or the day after but he and two friends were sitting around talking about the disaster when one of them said, “Someone should be writing this stuff down.” They began gathering stories that night, though after several months the friends dropped out to take on another writing project.
For Damon, gathering information and interviews regarding the 9-11 tragedy became an all-consuming experience. Relying on part time work, and a great deal on credit cards, he worked tirelessly on the manuscript for two years.
The Tower Stories is made up entirely of interviews. He started the book by talking to people on the street in his neighborhood on the Upper Westside. He called this beginning phase “checking out the rumor mill.” Where were you? What did you experience?
One interview led to another. People would tell him after they’d told their story that, “If you really want to know what happened talk to my friend.” That’s how Damon met a homicide detective who was in one of the towers when it collapsed.
Another person he interviewed put him in touch with a woman who worked in one of the towers and was pregnant at the time. Two strangers carried her down many flights of stairs in one of the burning buildings.
He was told to contact a friend of a friend, a soft-spoken shop owner whose business had been devastated by the fires.
In the end there were so many stories that the problem became how to distill the interviews into the most compelling presentation.
But the truth is that a publisher will only print so many pages. With the help of his agent, Damon took what he thought was the best crosscut through the spectrum of his interviews. He was not interested in the freakish aspect of what people experienced, but he wanted to tell real stories retaining the individuality of the person relating what happened to them.
Tower Stories is now in it’s second reprint and Damon has written or collaborated on eight other publications since his 9-11 book.
Reading the newspaper or watching the TV news it could feel like one tragedy is constantly overlapping another horrible experience; wars, starving children, earthquakes, tsunamis, there seems no end to what can go wrong. But when I began to read Tower Stories that terrible day on 9-11 came rushing back to me.
Damon’s masterful rendering of the interviews and the depiction of the affect it had on people’s lives are chilling. Utilizing the real life stories of those who witnessed the disaster firsthand, Damon brings the reader to a point where they can almost taste the dust-clogged air; feel what it is like to be trapped in a burning building.
Damon’s aim was never to sensationalize what happened that day but to present a well written witness of how that tragedy affected the lives of those who survived, and more importantly how they survived.
In the second edition of the book he has gone back to find out how the people have fared eight years later. Some people have managed to go on, to marry, raise a family and have happy lives despite this experience. There are some who still struggle with both the mental and physical effects of that day.
In the chaos of that horrible day there were no strangers. Men and women, frequently pulled out of harms way by nameless individuals, are the stories that Damon tells so well. The gore is there, ingrained in the horror of that day, but the story Damon tells is of humanity, survival and courage.
Tower Stories, An Oral History of 9-11 is a book worth reading, though not one that can be read quickly. Written in the style of Studs Turkel, Damon’s book takes the reader by the hand and through the experiences of others, tells us what it was like to be in the middle of the chaos of 9-11.
And we should thank who ever it was that night after 9-11 who said, “Someone should be writing this stuff down.”