'Fall And Rise' Seeks To Capture 9/11 As 'One Story' — And Keep It From Fading

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Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after it was hit by two hijacked passenger planes on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. (Robert Giroux/Getty Images)
Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after it was hit by two hijacked passenger planes on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. (Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

There is a new book out about a day that changed the world: "Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11."

It's by journalist Mitchell Zuckoff, who spent years researching the stories of individuals whose lives were forever altered on Sept. 11, 2001, when four planes were used as weapons by al-Qaeda terrorists. Two planes destroyed the World Trade Center towers in New York City, one badly damaged the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and another crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before reaching its intended target.

"There is this entire generation who didn't live through this, who don't have any independent memories of what happened those days," Zuckoff (@mitchellzuckoff) tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "Some members of that generation are going off to war to fight in Afghanistan — a war that started after this — and they don't have any direct connection to it."

One of the driving forces behind the book was an effort to tie 9/11 into a single narrative before it was too late, Zuckoff says — and to ensure the attacks don't fade too far from the public consciousness.

"Right now, other than Osama bin Laden, is there a single name that's a household name associated with 9/11?" he says. "Names are news, and we connect to them, and that is what's so important about this: before the time passes, before the people who I could talk to were gone, dead or just not available, to capture this as one story."

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Fall and Rise"

Interview Highlights

On starting the book with what happened in the days leading up to Sept. 11

"That was very much by design, to start the book actually on September 10th, because what Mohamed Atta, what Ziad Jarrah, what the other terrorists were doing, all these machinations: training to fly planes coming here, living in this country and coming closer and closer — the circle is tightening — to get them in a position doing trial runs and making this plan which took very little money, a lot of planning but very little money, very little overhead, if you will, and to position themselves where they could be here in Boston, they could go up to Portland, Maine, and be ready to do these events.

"It's not entirely clear [why they started their journey from Portland.] One strong suspicion we have is that the trip to Portland would allow them to avoid some suspicion. If you had eight Arab men all arriving at Boston's Logan Airport at the same exact time for the same flights, they thought this might avoid some of that. But that is one of those unanswerable questions."

"The idea of turning [a plane] into a guided missile wasn't, quite literally, on the radar for anyone. And that's unfortunately so sadly why it was so effective."

Mitchell Zuckoff

On whether all of the hijackers knew the full extent of what they were doing

"I think it's clear that all 19 knew exactly what was being planned, because it was a very coordinated attack. What happened on each one of the four planes was quite similar, where at a trigger moment, the muscle hijackers — the guys who were not flying the plane — went into attack mode. All of them had discussed ... the preparations for purifying themselves for what they understood would be their last day."

On the hijackers' use of Mace in the cabin so that it would be more difficult for passengers to thwart the attack

"The Mace is an open question. There was some discussion they had it. A lot of it was just the element of surprise, was the greatest thing, and they committed an act of violence almost on every plane. They immediately cut someone's throat to make it clear that they meant business. They said they had a bomb, they herded — these were very lightly attended planes, it was a random Tuesday morning to most people — they herded everyone into the back. And they also understood that the flight attendants and the crews would know that there was a standard protocol: You negotiate with terrorists. You expect that they're going to want to land somewhere and exchange passengers and money for their freedom, or for their political aims. This was not part of anyone's script except the terrorists.

"The idea of turning [a plane] into a guided missile wasn't, quite literally, on the radar for anyone. And that's unfortunately so sadly why it was so effective."

"Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11," by Mitchell Zuckoff. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11," by Mitchell Zuckoff. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On how communication failures shaped the way Sept. 11 unfolded

"Communication failures were rampant that day on every level, and that's where really, that's the sort of ground zero, if you will, of the communications failures — that people were calling saying what was going on. The airlines knew about it. And then even when it did finally reach the FAA, they weren't alerting the military. So planes are still taking off. Things are still happening that [are] allowing one after another of these hijackings. The communication failures, they're rampant, they're across everything in terms of the communication failures at the towers, communication failures even before it happened.

"A fact that always stayed with me was on 9/11, the FAA had a list, a no-fly list, of a dozen people on it. The State Department had a list, its tip-off terrorists list of 60,000 people it was watching. The director of airline security for the FAA didn't even know that State Department list existed."

"Communication failures were rampant that day on every level."

Mitchell Zuckoff

On stories about passengers on the planes that have stuck with him

"There are so many. One is from ... United Flight 175, the second plane that [crashed into the World Trade Center,] took off from from Boston's Logan Airport. And on that plane was a fellow named Peter Hanson and his wife Sue Kim and their daughter Christine. Christine was 2 years old and she was the youngest person directly affected by 9/11.

"While they were approaching the South Tower and it was clear something terrible was happening, they knew it, Peter called his father Lee in Connecticut, and the two phone calls between Peter and Lee are so poignant. And I spent time with Lee and Eunice Hanson in their home, in Peter's boyhood bedroom, talking about those. Peter was actually first telling his father, 'Please call someone, let them know what's happening.' And then Peter is actually comforting his father on the phone, when his wife and daughter are there huddled next to him in the back of this plane that they understand is flying too low, is heading toward the Statue of Liberty and toward the World Trade Center."

On people in the first tower to be hit thinking they didn't need to evacuate

"They were being told not to evacuate in both the towers. Some people were being told, 'It's over in the other tower.' People didn't know what was happening. And when the plane cut through, it knocked out the telecommunication system within the building that would have allowed people down in the basement and in the first floor to communicate to them. So the confusion began immediately, and people — some of them stayed in place for well over an hour. They didn't know there was a ticking clock for the survival of the building.

"I spoke to a number of the Port Authority police officers who were the dispatchers that day who took those calls. They haunted by them still. And they are recorded calls, so I can hear them, I can see the transcripts. They're remarkable in that they're trying to keep these people calm, they're trying to hope for the best. But there is no way up, and there's no way out."

On "the miracle of Stairwell B"

"One group of firefighters was Ladder 6, it was a unit in New York led by a remarkable guy named Jay Jonas, and Jay Jonas was a fire captain and he had this team of guys, a half dozen guys, and they're sent into the North Tower, and they're going up and they're walking stair by stair. And when the South Tower collapses, Jay realizes, 'I gotta get my guys out of here, quick.'

"On the way down, they pause to help a woman, Josephine Harris, who has been injured, who was exhausted, who can't go any farther. But they slow their exit to help Josephine, and as they're going farther and farther down through the building to get to the lobby, the North Tower starts to collapse. They're inside this center stairwell, and they just huddled together, hold on for dear life, and the building literally peels away around them, just keeping a few floors of Stairwell B — which is exactly where they are. And Jay realizes that having slowed to help Josephine ended up saving all of them, because had they been in the lobby, the lobby was completely destroyed. Had they been just outside, they would have been wiped out as well. So it truly was a miracle."

On what unfolded in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on 9/11

"People do I think know to some extent what happened on Flight 93, the 40 heroes of 93, who rose up and fought back to try to save themselves and ultimately ended up saving untold numbers of people, either at the Capitol or the White House, was the destination. But there in Shanksville — and I tell the story largely through Terry Shaffer, who was the volunteer fire chief there, who had been planning for something his whole life, and he thought it might be a pile-up on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And he races toward the scene expecting to find casualties, expecting to find people he can help. The story of the people in Shanksville and how they came together, and sort of embraced the families of the Flight 93 victims, is I think one of the most beautiful stories I've ever heard."

On the difficulties of determining what exactly was happening on the planes

"One of the advantages of a book almost 18 years after the event is so much of the material has become public, that all the FAA records of the flight altitudes almost on a second-by-second basis, as we're approaching Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the transcript of the cockpit recorder — which was enormously valuable, where we have the terrorist pilots discussing what they're doing with each other, 'Should we put it into the ground?' All of those different things, because that and the the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in 2006 [the so-called 20th hijacker,] certainly a conspirator even though he didn't get on one of the planes. All of that material became available, and it was a mountain of material. But for me, it was priceless."

On why he wrote this book

"It was too important not to. It becomes a responsibility when you realize that there are so many people who don't have a human connection to this story — the way I think of it is sometimes, 9/11 is becoming a story reduced to numbers: 9 and 11, four planes, 19 hijackers, 3,000 people killed. But you don't connect names to it. And I felt if I could do that, if I could give people the story as it unfolded through the people that they could connect to, then I would have done something worthwhile."

Book Excerpt: 'Fall And Rise'

by Mitchell Zuckoff

Just after 9 a.m., inside her hilltop house in rural Stoystown, Pennsylvania, homemaker Linda Shepley watched her television in shock. The screen showed smoke billowing from a gash in the North Tower as Today show anchor Katie Couric interviewed an NBC producer who witnessed the crash of American Flight 11.

“You say that emergency vehicles are there?” Couric asked Elliott Walker by phone.

“Oh, my goodness!” Walker cried at 9:03 a.m. “Ah! Another one just hit!”

Linda watched the terror in her living room beside her husband, Jim, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation manager, who’d taken the day off to trade in their old car. The Shepleys saw a grim-faced President Bush speak to the nation from Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Then Couric interviewed a terrorism expert but interrupted him for a phone call with NBC military correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, who declared at 9:39 a.m., “Katie, I don’t want to alarm anybody right now, but apparently, it felt just a few moments ago like there was an explosion of some kind here at the Pentagon.”

From the home where they’d lived for nearly three decades, the Shepleys could have driven to Washington in time for lunch or to New York City for an afternoon movie. Yet as the political and financial capitals reeled, those big cities felt almost as far away as the caves of Afghanistan. Jim went to the garage, to clean out the car he still planned to trade in that day. Linda hurried to finish the laundry before she accompanied Jim to the dealership.

Forty-seven years old, with kind eyes and three grown sons, Linda loved the smell of clothes freshly dried by the crisp Allegheny mountain air. As ten o’clock approached, she filled a basket with wet laundry and carried it to the clothesline in her backyard, two grassy acres with unbroken views over rolling hills that stretched southeast toward the neighboring borough of Shanksville. As Linda lifted a wet T-shirt toward the line, she heard a loud thump-thump sound behind her, like a truck rumbling over a bridge. Startled, she glanced over her left shoulder and saw a large commercial passenger plane, its wings wobbling, rocking left and right, flying much too low in the bright blue sky.

As the plane passed overhead at high speed, Linda saw the jet was intact, with neither smoke nor flame coming from either engine. Linda made no connection between the plane’s strange behavior and the news she’d watched minutes earlier about hijacked airliners crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Instead, she suspected that a mechanical problem had forced the plane low and wobbly, on a flight path over her house that she’d never before witnessed. Maybe, Linda thought, the pilot was signaling distress and searching for someplace to make an emergency landing. Linda worried that their local airstrip, Somerset County Airport, was far too small to handle such a big plane. And if that was the pilot’s destination, she thought, he or she was heading the wrong way.

Linda didn’t know the plane was United Flight 93, and she couldn’t imagine that minutes earlier the passengers and crew had taken a vote to fight back. Or that CeeCee Lyles, Jeremy Glick, Todd Beamer, Sandy Bradshaw, and others on board had shared that decision during emotional phone calls, or that the revolt was reaching its peak, or that the four hijackers had resolved to crash the plane short of their target to prevent the hostages from retaking control.

Linda tracked the jet as sunlight glinted off its metal skin. Its erratic flight pattern continued. The right wing dipped farther and farther. The left wing rose higher, until the plane was almost perpendicular with the earth, like a catamaran in high winds. Linda saw it start to turn and roll, flipping nearly upside down. Then the plane plunged, nosediving beyond a stand of hemlocks two miles from where Linda stood. As quickly as the jet disappeared, an orange fireball blossomed, accompanied by a thick mushroom cloud of dark smoke.

“Jim!” Linda screamed. “Call 9-1-1!”

Her husband burst outside, fearing that their neighbor’s Rottweiler mix had broken loose from its chain and attacked her.

“A big plane just crashed!” Linda yelled.

“A small plane,” Jim said skeptically, as he regained his bearings. “No, no, no, no. It was a big one. It was a big one! I saw the engines on the wings.”

Jim rushed inside and grabbed a phone.

Heartsick, still clutching the wet T-shirt, Linda stared toward the rising smoke. Soon she’d wonder whether, in the last seconds before the crash, any of the men and women on board saw her hanging laundry on this glorious late-summer day.

Excerpted from the book FALL AND RISE by Mitchell Zuckoff. Copyright © 2019 by Mitchell Zuckoff. Republished with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

This article was originally published on April 29, 2019.

This segment aired on April 29, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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