I am attached to the television as if every friend I ever had is about to cross the screen. The helicopter shots are mesmerizing. In my mind's eye I try to visualize what is happening in the towers as I see the flames shooting from their sides. How many have been killed by the impact of the planes, and how many have been burned by the fires? How many will be living, and how many will be dead? How many will be trapped on the fire floor, above the fire, and below the fire in collapsed areas? And the firefighters? How many flights of stairs will they have to run up, and how many minutes will it take them to reach the fire floors? How many firefighters are at this very minute racing into the buildings to get to those who need help?
How many will be caught above the fires? It looks like there are ten stories above the fire in the north tower that haven't been hit directly by the plane, and maybe twenty-five stories above the fire in the south tower. Oh, my God, I cry to myself. How many people are on each floor? An acre each floor. Maybe two hundred or more? Thousands. And what will they do? Did the planes take out the fire stairs? The fire will go right up the wells, like a chimney. No one will be able to get to the roof. Maybe the only way they can be saved is by extinguishing the fire and bringing ladders in. That will take hours, maybe days. It is so hot above a fire. I have been there many times in the tenements of the Bronx, hot and dangerous. And if the stairs are out, the situation will be untenable. How many are trapped at this very moment, trying to come to grips with their own end?
How many? It is a natural reaction to contemplate the numbers. But I know that I must think only of the individuals affected. Even one person is too many to be in the presence of such mortal danger, yet I know that fundamental to this terrible incident will be the numbers.
The heat must be extraordinary, generated by airplanes with fuel-filled wings. I remember a question on the lieutenant's test of many years ago: What is the expansion factor of a one-hundred-foot steel beam as it reaches the inherent heat level of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit? The answer is nine and a half inches, and I try to gauge how hot this fire before me is burning. Is it intense enough to bring the steel to 1200 degrees? The smoke is first very black, indicating the burning fuel, and then white as it rises, indicating great heat. It is not a good sign. If the steel stretches, the floor will collapse, and that will only make the rescue effort more difficult.
We are at the beginning of a war, I think as I begin to change my clothes. No one could send two planes into our largest buildings without a grander plan, and I fear there will be more to follow this disaster.
I find an old Engine Co. 82 T-shirt, an FDNY sweatshirt, jeans, and heavy black hiking shoes. This is just about the same kind of uniform I wore when I used to work on Engine 82 in the days before bunker gear, neck protectors, sixty-minute air tanks, and personal alert devices. I make certain to bring my badge with the department's picture identification card, certain there will be tight security everywhere I go today.
At 9:45 a third plane goes into the Pentagon, and I begin to make my way to a firehouse.
The notion of an enemy's attacking us in the innocence of our early morning is repellent. The Pentagonthe very heart of our military strength. How could they have stolen these planes? The question vibrates within me. How could they have gotten onto our planes with guns or weapons? Why didn't someone notice what they were doing, or suspect them? But it is not like us, we Americans, to be suspicious. It is our optimism that prevents us from attributing evil intentions to others; it is our need to protect the rights of everyone that leads us to think the best of people. And that is our strength, actually; this basic freedom to walk around freely without suspicion makes America what it is. But it is that very attitude that also leaves us so vulnerable. One might argue that the price we pay to protect our freedoms is to be tolerant of strangers. All any American needs to do is to look around his community to recognize that we are indeed a nation of strangers. Our cultural diversity is so great that even our good friends and professional colleagues have cultural traits and assumptions that we do not share, or even understand. That is the way it should be in an open society. But how do I explain to myself, and to my children, that our freedoms have led to this horrible event?
Copyright 2002 Dennis Smith. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Viking.
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