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Remembering a disaster, survivor by survivor

Author compiles 'September 11: An Oral History'

Remembering a disaster, survivor by survivor

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- On September 11, life turned on a dime.

Roselyn Braud, who worked in the World Trade Center's underground operations complex, fled in panic when the first tower came down. Her co-workers stayed on the job. None of them survived.

Stephen Miller, a computer systems administrator in the South Tower, decided to ignore an announcement to return to his office after the North Tower was hit. He lived. Many others who went back never got out.

Tracy Webb, a civilian Army employee, delayed a trip to a Pentagon cafeteria. That decision saved her life.

There is an element of "the road not taken" in pretty much every life decision. But the 37 stories compiled in "September 11: An Oral History" (Doubleday) still get one thinking about the vagaries of chance.

"That's a healthy reaction: 'What would I do?' " compiler and author Dean E. Murphy said in a phone interview from San Francisco, where he is bureau chief for The New York Times.

In-Depth Special: America Remembers 

But he pointed out that an equally important part of the story is the aftermath: People who returned to their churches with a newfound faith, people who left their jobs behind after two or three decades, people coping with anger and fear and sadness and despondency.

Almost all of the people he interviewed seem emotionally stunned, but for some, talking about their experience is like trying to lance a cold, black sorrow.

Ernest Armstead, a 30-year emergency medical specialist veteran of the fire department, almost seems to be pleading to make his psychic pain go away.

He recalls his nightmarish experience: As he placed triage tags on fallen victims in the plaza, a woman -- with only her head and right torso intact -- spoke to him.

"I am not dead," she said evenly. He placed a black tag, meaning dead or terminal, around her neck. "I am not dead!" she yelled.

And he lied to her: "We will be right back to you."

"That really resonated with me," Murphy said. "Would that be the moment I say, 'Enough'?"

'It's the living versus the dead'

Which is saying something. Murphy has seen his share of war zones. He has been in Bosnia, in Dar es Salaam, in Sierra Leone. He had to visit a morgue in Sierra Leone to verify the identities of two murdered colleagues. You can distance yourself, he said, but only so much.

Dean Murphy
Author Dean E. Murphy  

Still, he did not shy away from doing the September 11 history. He had been a general assignment reporter in New York before his recent transfer to San Francisco and had done some of the Times' "Portraits of Grief."

When Doubleday approached him about an oral history, "I thought it was a good idea," he said. "It's such a natural thing to want to document."

But the oral history was different from the "Portraits."

"It's the living versus the dead," Murphy said. "There, you talk to families and try to reconstruct parts of people's lives. This was trying to get those lives in [the subjects'] own words."

Still, the work is not a Studs Terkel-like collection of interviews. Murphy talked to a cross-section of people who worked in the WTC and the Pentagon -- "from the student to the general," he said -- going over their words carefully, pushing at the details, reaffirming their accuracy.

Some interviews were done in person, others via e-mail, others on the phone and even by old-fashioned U.S. mail. The process was a constant back-and-forth with respondents.

"I wanted it to be as humanly accurate as possible," Murphy said. "Then I wrote it in the first person using my understanding of their voice, then they reviewed my work" to make sure names, times and places were correct. The stories are presented in plain text, unadorned by photographs.

Interestingly Murphy, then a New Jersey resident, was not in Manhattan for much of September 11. Having been assigned to mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg, he was going to cover the day's primary and planned to come into town in late morning.

He had just celebrated his son's birthday at home when he heard about the attack. Because trans-Hudson arteries were closed, he did not get into the city until 6 p.m. He stayed up until 2:30 a.m. and checked into a Lexington Avenue hotel.

When he called his wife the next morning, he received a startling lesson of the tragedy's impact. His two oldest children, 7 and 6, had taken their mattresses off their beds and propped them up, side by side. Then they asked their 2-year-old sibling to knock them over.

"It was a game," Murphy writes. "A game of Twin Towers."

'A foundation stone'

The World Trade Center experiences take up the majority of the book, but Murphy also devotes a section to the Pentagon.

"The idea was to make sure the Pentagon was not forgotten," he said. "In terms of its impact and the number of deaths, the World Trade Center was the greater tragedy, but the trauma at the Pentagon was fantastic. It's important to include these people."

He and the publisher have expanded the project to include the entire world. They have established a Web site -- -- to allow anyone to share their experiences of that terrible day.

"I view this as a foundation stone," he said. "Decades from now, when someone has a new tidbit, I hope something here can allow them to draw from."

"September 11: An Oral History" does not try to be the definitive record of 9/11 reminiscences, Murphy said. The book is designed to be read chapter by chapter, person by person, with "the idea to make each one individual whole."

Those individuals should not be forgotten, he said. "I have great respect and gratitude for those who have contributed. They've added to the historical record."


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