Heroes – or victims?
In an exclusive extract from her analysis of 9/11, The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi looks at the role the firefighters really played
Monday February 18, 2008
In the end, the character actors who won the 9/11 hero sweepstakes were the New York City firemen. Their uniforms and the direction in which they were heading provided a clear demarcation between them, the heroes, and the office workers, the victims. The secretaries and financial brokers ran down the stairs; the firemen ran up – 343 of them to their deaths. Conveniently for the mythmakers, less than 0.3% of New York’s firefighters were women. There would be no need to rewrite the gender roles in this drama. The adulation began at once.
In our “different kind of war”, these uniformed men were assigned the role of our new supersoldiers. “These are the men who will fight our wars,” President Bush intoned, after posing with the firefighters at the smouldering ruins, as if he were their commanding officer. “These men are fighting the first battle,” Mayor Giuliani declared. In fact, he maintained, they had already won it. “Our firefighters helped save more than 25,000 lives that day – the greatest single rescue mission in America’s history.” That was a claim the surviving firefighters themselves would regard as preposterous. Of the 16,000 to 18,000 occupants of the World Trade Centre that day, 95% of those who died were on the upper floors, beyond reach of rescue, and most of those on the lower floors rescued themselves without uniformed help. The grim truth is that the human toll would have been significantly lower had the firefighters never entered the buildings.
“We were just as much victims as everybody that was in the building,” Derek Brogan of Engine Five said in his personal account, one of more than 500 oral histories the fire department amassed. James Murphy put it this way: “We were just victims, too. Basically, the only difference between us and the victims is, we had flashlights.”
Flashlights and non-working radios. The firefighters entered the World Trade Centre armed with 15-year-old radios that were well known to malfunction in high-rise buildings. When the South Tower fell, the firefighters in the North Tower had no idea what had happened. When the fire chief radioed a Mayday order to evacuate the North Tower, almost none of the firefighters heard it. In the words of a 2005 National Institute of Standards and Technology study, “the evidence indicates that emergency responders’ lives were likely lost [as a result of] lack of timely information and inadequate communication capabilities”. Firefighters made the same point in their oral history accounts; they said they were “clueless” and knew “absolutely nothing” of what was going on outside.
These oral histories were repressed for three and a half years; the mayor’s office refused to make them public and relented only after an order from the state’s highest court. A year before their release, the former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, testifed at a 9/11 commission hearing that plenty of firefighters heard the Mayday order but chose to stay and help civilians. “And the fact that so many of them interpreted it that way, kept a much calmer situation,” he started to say, before being cut off by outraged firefighter families in the audience:
Unidentified female: No!
Unidentified female: No!
Unidentified male: Radios!
Giuliani: And these people –
Unidentified male: Talk about the radios!
Giuliani: These people –
Unidentified male: Radios!
Unidentified male: Talk about the radio!
Thomas Kean, 9/11 commission chairman: Would you please ask –
Unidentified female: My son was murdered! Murdered because of incompetence, and the radios didn’t work.
The firefighter families’ efforts to get at the truth were shunted aside. The myth of effective rescue soon became an unassailable and sacred truth. When Terry Golway, city editor of the New York Observer, published his 368-page homage to the FDNY in 2002, So Others Might Live, he began the prologue with this sentence: “343 members of the Fire Department of New York died on September 11 2001, while taking part in one of the most successful rescue efforts in history.”
In an exclusive extract from her analysis of 9/11, The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi examines how America dealt with its sense of impotence
Monday February 18, 2008
In mid-September 2001, as soon as air traffic resumed, a neighbour of mine, a psychiatric social worker, flew to New York from the west coast with no plan other than to be of service. We all knew the impulse; she was an American in an hour when, as the media kept repeating, Americans were “coming together”. Then she returned, and what she brought back was silence, the silence of someone with nothing to report. And that, too, was coming to seem familiar.
It would certainly be familiar to the battalions of city firefighters, police officers and paramedics who raced to ground zero on 9/11 from emergency services across the region, across the state, across the country; the medical and quasi-medical volunteers who staffed the dozens of MASH-style hospitals that materialised in marbled bank lobbies and shopping mall atriums and the courtyards of insurance firms; the doctors who jogged over the bridges from Brooklyn and the 100 surgeons attending a course at Montefiore Hospital who sped to the scene in two packed buses. In front of the Salomon Smith Barney building, a mobile hospital boasted teams of 20 different specialists. At Chelsea Piers, a massive triage centre filled a television studio lot with 50 operating suites and a sea of gurneys. Thousands of citizens stood in five-hour lines to offer their blood, and hundreds more showed up at the smouldering mound with garden trowels to dig for survivors. One man drove from Nebraska with a bulldozer in his flatbed truck.
What met them was idleness. By early afternoon in front of the Salomon Smith Barney building, the mobile hospital had treated only two businessmen, both for minor breathing problems; by dusk at Chelsea Piers, surgeons had received no visitors except a messenger with a delivery of sandwiches. The physicians and nurses who lined up beside a brigade of stretchers and wheelchairs outside New York Downtown Hospital and St Vincent’s and Bellevue and Mount Sinai and Beth Israel, waiting to greet the wounded, waited for hours, braced for a deluge that never came.
Consider the tasks that followed: the turning away of the blood donors, the rolling back of the empty wheelchairs and stretchers, the folding of winding sheets meant for bodies that never arrived. Consider the rescue teams that found no one to rescue, the volunteer excavators who excavated only a confetti of office memos and the occasional cellphone, and the medical examiners who examined only fragments of human flesh. And then consider the question: what was a rescuer without someone to rescue?
“Is there anything I can do?” one volunteer demanded of a firefighter. The firefighter replied: “There’s nothing anybody can do.”
The despondency and humiliation induced by this lack of purpose eventually settled on everyone at ground zero. A Washington Post reporter tried to interview a physician’s assistant in green scrubs, only to be treated to “a 1,000-yard stare”. It was “not the horror” generating the stare, the reporter wrote. “It was the impotence.” An impotence that afflicted the nation at large.
The search for survivors quickly gave way to a search for heroes, and the hunt had a desperate quality to it. Within hours of the attack, the word was on every media lip. “There are going to be a lot of stories of heroes and miracles coming out of the mess down there,” Fox News reporter Shepard Smith was saying by the evening of 9/11. “We want to take a few moments and think about some of the heroes,” CNN correspondent Garrick Utley said. Those few moments proved hard to fill. All Utley could offer was: “Of course, we don’t know how many there were, or what was happening on that aeroplane that crashed in Pennsylvania, or in the Pentagon offices, or even here in Lower Manhattan.” ABC correspondent Bob Brown was having similar difficulties. But he promised that exemplars were sure to surface soon. “‘There is an electric fire in human nature,’ John Keats said, that continually results in the birth of heroism,” Brown told viewers. “Last night and today and through the long days that will follow, a lot of ordinary people will make those words come true many times.”
And no doubt many ordinary people did. A few of their stories would survive the World Trade Centre’s demise. There was John Demczur, the window washer who sawed through Sheetrock and tile with his squeegee to free himself and four other men. There was Brian Clark, an executive vice president at Euro Brokers who saved the life of Stanley Praimnath, a Fuji Bank loan officer, by digging him out from behind a wall of collapsed ceilings and office furniture. There were Michael Benfante and John Cerqueira, two telecommunications workers, who carried Tina Hansen, a 41-year-old woman in a wheelchair, down 68 flights. But most of the stories of who saved whom were lost in the flames. With so few surviving Ishmaels to bear witness from the upper floors of the towers – and none in the four hijacked planes – the valour of people in the buildings and in the air so often had to be imagined.
One of the day’s darkest incidents offered the brightest hope. Flight 93 was more perfect for mythmaking for being so scant in its facts. “Did they do what we think they did?” Time magazine asked in its September 24 issue. “Did three strangers on a flight in distress band together to fight their captors and ditch the Boeing 757 before it could harm untold thousands?” The magazine’s answer: “We’d like to think they did it.” This speculation wasn’t far advanced from that of a week and a half earlier. “If, in fact, the passengers intervened and somehow thwarted the hijacking attempt,” CBS reporter Bob Orr hypothesised on air to Dan Rather before noon of September 12, “and the cockpit tape and the flight data recorder, when they’re recovered, might make this case, then they should be observed in this case, Dan, as heroes.” On CNN that day, correspondent Miles O’Brien was indulging in the same wistful speculations. He had no real information about what transpired aboard the hijacked United plane that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. “We can only surmise,” he said. Nonetheless, he concluded, “If you’re looking for heroes, the passengers on board that plane, obviously now perished, would be them.” By September 13, the Washington Post was running the story of Flight 93 on the front page, with this declaration: “Some are already describing as heroes the passengers who may have tried to thwart the hijackers’ plans.”
The recovered flight recordings yielded sounds of muffled shouts and screams just before the crash, but no great clarity. Flight 93 heroism rested on a few brief cellphone calls – most notably, medical-device executive Thomas Burnett’s remark to his wife that they were going to “have to do something” – and the last enigmatic words of software salesman Todd Beamer, after reciting the Lord’s Prayer, overheard by an Airfone operator: “You ready? OK. Let’s roll.” Beyond that, the media based their case on the assertions of family members that their loved one was “a take-charge guy” (Jeremy Glick), “a go-to guy” who “didn’t take no for an answer” (Todd Beamer), and a man who would “never go down without a fight” (Thomas Burnett) – remarks treated by the network correspondents like hard news leads. In a September 18 interview on Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer peppered the men’s widows with leading statements: “You really believe in your hearts you know what happened,” she told Lyz Glick. “And, Lisa, you feel that way, too,” she told Lisa Beamer. “So you feel maybe they got control, got into the cockpit but they weren’t pilots, they didn’t know how to fly the plane?”
“There is something about the similarities of these three passengers that makes the portrait of them as confederates perfectly imaginable,” Time said of passengers Burnett, Glick and another travelling businessman, Mark Bingham, who had been added to the list of heroes (based largely on the belief of Bingham’s family and friends that “he would have jumped into action”). “All three were large, athletic, decisive types,” Time said, ranking them by height: Bingham, “6ft 5in”, “played rugby when at the University of California, Berkeley”; Glick, “6ft 4in”, “a national collegiate judo champion”; and Burnett, “6ft 1in”, “a former high school football player”. Beamer’s basketball and baseball exploits in high school and college were much noted, as was the fact that he had hung a painting of Michael Jordan in his home office. “As a teenage basketball player,” Time said typically, “Todd Beamer was the kind of guy you wanted on the free-throw line in a tied game.”
Such versions left out a somewhat shorter, lighter cohort. On Flight 93, flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw called home, too, to report her part in the cabin revolt: she and another flight attendant were boiling coffee pots of water to scald the terrorists. “We’re going to throw water on them and try to take the aeroplane over,” she told her husband. Then she said she had to hang up because she was “running to first class” with her chosen weapons. Other phone calls record female flight attendants and female passengers displaying courage. But the myth taking shape demanded male rescuers and female captives. In that story, Bradshaw’s coffee pot could not become a symbol of American gumption. The flight attendants were assigned another role, as frightened damsels whose distress turned them into inadvertent sirens. As Newsweek put it, “The screams of the attendants may have lured the co-pilots out of their cockpits.”
Meanwhile, the athletic pursuits and vital statistics of Flight 93’s virile contingent, repeated over and over in media reports, assumed mythic dimensions. Here is the opening sequence from NBC’s October 2 Dateline special on the flight:
Host Jane Pauley “With only 37 ticketed passengers, there’d be plenty of room to stretch out on a long trip. And some of the passengers were pretty big guys. Mark Bingham was a rugby player.”
Alice Hoglan [Bingham’s mother] “He is powerful. He’s 6ft 5in, a big, physically fit guy.”
Pauley (voiceover) “So was Jeremy Glick, a six-footer.”
Unidentified woman one “He was like a giant teddy bear. You just fell into his arms and wanted to stay there for ever.”
Pauley (voiceover) “And Lou Nacke, only 5ft 9in, but 200lb of muscle. He was a weightlifter with a Superman tattoo on his shoulder.”
Unidentified woman two “When he was a little boy, he loved Superman. And he actually had a cape on and went through a glass window pretending to be Superman.”
Piecing together all the scraps of evidence, the 9/11 commission ultimately concluded that it was most likely that the passengers of Flight 93 did attempt to confront the hijackers but did not succeed in entering the cockpit. “The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them,” the commission’s report stated. But this version of events – valorous in its own right – was insufficient to support the grand opera the media was determined to stage. In a “ferocious assault”, Newsweek said, a “band of patriots came together to defy death and save a symbol of freedom”. The men of Flight 93 were a “group of citizen soldiers who rose up, like their forefathers, to defy tyranny. And when they came storming down the aisle, it wasn’t the Americans who were afraid. It was the terrorists.”
“Courage and optimism led the passengers on Flight 93 to rush their murderers to save lives on the ground, led by a young man whose last known words were the Lord’s Prayer and ‘Let’s roll’,” Bush declared in his national address on November 8 2001. “We will, no doubt, face new challenges. But we have our marching orders: my fellow Americans, let’s roll!” In a matter of weeks, polls were reporting that the most admired people in the country were President Bush, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and … Todd Beamer. “Let’s Roll!” was emblazoned on everything from a jet in the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Squadron and kids’ backpacks to computer mouse pads. The rush to cash in on the motto proved so intense that the Todd M Beamer Foundation, a 9/11 children’s charity fund set up by Beamer’s widow, applied to trademark the phrase.
By the time Vanity Fair ran its December 2001 account, “Manifest Courage: The Story of Flight 93”, the male passengers had entered Valhalla. Theirs was, perhaps, “one of the greatest tales of heroism ever told,” Vanity Fair’s Bryan Burrough wrote. The men “had not merely proved themselves heroes, but also created an authentic American legend and quite probably changed the course of American history as well.” Their story “is swiftly passing into the realm of American mythology, a tale we will tell our children and grandchildren”.
Congress drew up the True American Heroes Act to award gold medals to the heroes of Flight 93. At first, proposed legislation singled out the same four men the media had elevated: Burnett, Glick, Bingham and Beamer. But then relatives of other male passengers began complaining that their loved ones also deserved hero status. Lori Guadagno, sister of Richard Guadagno, told the press that she felt sure her brother took on the terrorists, because he had been trained in law enforcement and was “a man of action”. For him to be overlooked was “a very hurtful, painful thing for my family,” she said. Hamilton Peterson, son of passenger Donald Peterson, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “I think everyone involved was a hero. I think all the victims deserve recognition.”
Ultimately, all 37 passengers and seven crew members received medals – along with every officer, firefighter, emergency worker and government employee who responded to the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks, Mayor Giuliani, governor George Pataki, the Port Authority commissioners and every city fire precinct.
The line between “hero” and “victim” was evidently thin. The “seeming passivity” of the passengers on the other hijacked planes, Charles Krauthammer worried in Time, “is reminiscent of the Holocaust”. But with Flight 93, that was behind us. We should feel safe now, Time’s Nancy Gibbs assured in an October 22 article. “If anyone tries anything now, the guy in 9A will go low, 11C will hit high and the hijacker will end up stuffed in an overhead bin,” she wrote, supporting her supposition with the examples of an unnamed St Louis banker who was “spending extra time on the firing range these days” and an unnamed New York bartender who “packed a pair of heavy construction gloves for his flight to Los Angeles – just in case he has to confront someone with a box cutter.”
It was as though the medals handed out for Flight 93 were only secondarily about honouring a fight against foreign antagonists. The primary contest was a war against the wasting disease suspected to have overtaken the male professional class. By taking on the terrorists, the white-collar men of Flight 93 were assuring their brethren that the “feminised society” wasn’t irreversible, after all.
“Who are Beamer, Glick, Burnett and the rest?” William Bennett asked in the finale of his book Why We Fight. “They were guys in jackets and ties, guys in white shirts, businessmen, family men, representatives of the great American middle class, the most maligned class in history.” By which, he soon made clear, he meant the most maligned class of men. The actions on board United’s hijacked plane showed that the American middle-class male was no longer “squashed down”, as Bennett phrased it. The men of Flight 93 had prevailed in the culture wars, and defeated their humiliators.
Fighting the gender war seemed to be a preoccupying concern, too, of Mark Steyn’s November 19 article in the National Review, in which he denounced the proponents of nanny-state big government – “Hillary & Co” prominent among them – for having de-balled American men in the air just as they had on the ground. The airline cabin was “the perfect symbol” of “the modern social-democratic state,” he wrote, with a female FAA director who stripped pilots of their handguns and an oligarchy of flight attendants on every plane whose dictates had to be obeyed or “there’ll be officers waiting to arrest you when the plane lands”.
Identifying acts of courage and acknowledging people whose heroism gives solace to others is an essential part of any war effort. In the persons of its first responders, its volunteers, and even its commuters turned combatants on a hijacked aeroplane, America had ample paragons of courage. But the national frenzy to apotheosise those people suggested a deep cultural unease beneath the hero worship; the culture lofted them into some ridiculously gilded firmament while, at the same time, dissatisfied with their example, it kept searching for more available chests to decorate with war medals. The suddenness of the attacks and the finality of the towers’ collapse and the planes’ obliteration left us with little in the way of ongoing chronicle or ennobling narrative. So a narrative was created and populated with pasteboard protagonists whose exploits would exist almost entirely in the realm of American archetype and American fantasy. There was a danger in being honoured with such manufactured laurels, particularly for the tragedy’s survivors: for the fantasy to hold, citizens would have to stay in character, never mind that their roles were constrained and deforming, never mind that the command performance prevented them from expressing what they really had witnessed and suffered that day.