Excluding the terrorists, 2,977 men, women and children died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001. Another 6,000 sustained physical injuries; thousands more suffered from respiratory, emotional or other ailments.

In “Fall and Rise,” investigative reporter Mitchell Zuckoff introduces us to hundreds of them. A minute-to-minute, suspenseful, heart-wrenching and inspirational narrative, “Fall and Rise” should endure as a prose poem memorial to a day like no other.

Zuckoff’s protagonists — airline pilots, flight attendants, passengers, firefighters, office workers — look like America. In their extraordinary ordinariness, in the range of their responses to a horrific event, they testify to the value of every human life.

Trapped in an elevator of the north tower of the World Trade Center, aspiring actor Chris Young, Zuckoff tells us, reprised his rendition on the college stage of “The Impossible Dream,” from the musical “Man of La Mancha.”

Covered with ash from a day spent saving lives and nearly losing his own, EMT Moose Diaz, an American of Cuban/Palestinian/Haitian descent, arrived at home, sat on the floor with his wife, and cried.

Before he boarded doomed American Airlines Flight 11, Pendyala Vamsikrishna left a voice mail for his wife, Prasanna Kalahasti, a dental student, to tell her he’d be home for lunch. A month later, she died by suicide, leaving a note that indicated she had to end her “deep pain.”

Jerry Henson, a former combat aviator, knowing he’d have died if David Tarantino hadn’t crawled through smoke and fire to extricate him, could not stop asking himself, “How do you thank someone for saving your life?”

“You’ve got to remember,” Wally Miller, a funeral home director and county coroner in Shanksville, told his neighbors, “that everybody that dies, that’s somebody’s favorite guy, whether it’s a prisoner or the richest guy in town or somebody else.”

Embedded in Zuckoff’s narrative of the saved and lost is an analysis of our nation’s vulnerability on 9/11. Federal intelligence-gathering agencies, we learn, did not share information about terrorists with the FAA. On Sept. 11, the FAA’s “no fly list” contained 12 names. And air traffic controllers had no direct line of communication to the military.

Design and structural innovations at the twin towers made the buildings more susceptible to fire — and they were equipped with only three stairwells per tower, each of them encased in flammable lightweight gypsum wallboard. Most important, firefighters (bearing 80 pounds of equipment and walking up 1,500 or more steps) would probably be unable to reach people trapped on upper floors in time, and certainly not with sufficient water in their hoses to extinguish the blaze.

At a commemorative ceremony held on Sept. 11, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that “the road ahead is long,” but declared that the terrorists “have already been defeated.” They wanted to kill innocence, he declared; instead 9/11 “was a day when heroes were born.” As “Fall and Rise” demonstrates, he was right about the heroes. But, alas, terrorism remains our terrifying new normal.

 

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11
By: Mitchell Zuckoff.
Publisher: Harper, 589 pages, $29.99.