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Stories to tell

College pals document 9/11 experiences of 'real people'

By Greg Botelho

Mollod, left, and Dimarco say the tales in Tower Stories remind us that a momentous event like what unfolded September 11 can happen any time and to any person. (Source -- CNN)  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Four days after September 11, college buddies Damon Dimarco and Phineas Mollod were in a Manhattan bar reflecting on the horrific week that was.

Both had been sucked into the TV and newspaper coverage of the terrorist attacks, which left them numb but hardly enlightened on what really happened.

They took the most comfort, the most understanding from talking with friends, overhearing stories at a local deli or running into neighbors -- in other words, listening to real people detail what occurred on that tragic late summer day.

"People just want to know what happened -- that's part of closure and healing as well," said Mollod, a 30-year-old New York resident like Dimarco. "How does this affect real people? What really happened in New York? I want to know."

And so Mollod floated his idea: a book documenting the firsthand accounts of those directly and indirectly affected by the terrorist attacks. Dimarco was instantly sold and Tower Stories, a collection of interviews and images from everyday New Yorkers, was born.

Over the next year, both men -- with the help of their partner Jason Tesaro, then living in Atlanta, Georgia -- followed up leads, collected pictures and talked with more than 100 people about their experiences.

A cross section of New York was interviewed, from firefighters to investment bankers to elevator starters -- all affected by the attacks.

While they are still looking for a publisher, Dimarco believes Tower Stories will resonate with readers in search of riveting drama, raw emotion and an honest historical account of how the attacks affected average people experiencing a surreal nightmare.

"Those people who were not [in New York] and heard about things secondhand deserve to hear about it firsthand," says Dimarco. "This book is like having 100 people in your living room, talking about what happened, about what they did that day, in their own voices."

Determined to make a difference

A banner, topped by flags, runs over Ground Zero, reminding rescue workers and America of the more than 3,000 people who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks.  

Mollod was walking from a yoga class at Chelsea Piers the morning of September 11 when he looked up and noticed a gaping, fiery hole in the World Trade Center's North Tower. Minutes later, a plane slammed into the South Tower. As fire trucks fought through traffic on West Side Highway, a sickened Mollod began his long walk to his Upper East Side apartment.

Dimarco got word of the attacks when his roommate entered, screaming. Another roommate, then blocks from the World Trade Center, called minutes later "to say briefly that the world is coming apart," Dimarco recalled.

Over the next few days, Mollod and Dimarco were in a funk. They wanted to help, but didn't know how. Nothing made any sense, said Dimarco, until they came up with Tower Stories.

"I can't weld an I-beam. I can do volunteer work, but that's just another set of hands," he said. "I guess we figured [this was the] contribution that we could make, with the skill-set we have."

The profits from Tower Stories, excluding project-related expenses incurred over the last year, will benefit Families of Freedom, a scholarship fund for the children of September 11 victims. The gesture helps assuage any guilt about making money off the tragedy, says Dimarco, and lets both the project collaborators and readers give back to the community.

Everywhere Dimarco and Mollod turned in New York, they found a story. Within weeks, they had more than 100 potential subjects -- people who had been in the towers, who lived in the area, who were moved to act on or after September 11 or who had relevant expertise to share.

They approached the survivors delicately. They didn't force them to discuss anything they weren't at ease with and let them review a final transcript of their interview. Above all, Dimarco and Mollod say, their job was to listen: The stories would speak for themselves.

"The thing that lives on about a culture are the stories we tell about the past and the poignant moments in our society," said Dimarco. "Fifty years down the line, kids in colleges can pick up [Tower Stories] and have a relationship with the people who were actually there."

Letting the stories speak for themselves

Some interview subjects, like Roger Smyth, were skeptical at first. Smyth, an Irish national and a New York paramedic, had been at Ground Zero before, while, and after the twin towers collapsed. He talked to several journalists, many of them European, only to be disgusted when he later saw his words taken out of context.

But Smyth found the Tower Stories' editors to be different.

"They were willing to hear everything I had to say," said Smyth. "They weren't out to make a quick buck: They wanted to tell a real story, as truthful as it could be. ... When I read [the transcript], it sounded like the way I talked."

For others, like John McGrath, talking about their experiences was the hardest part. McGrath, who attended Drew University in New Jersey with Dimarco and Mollod, was working in his office across from the World Trade Center -- where he worked for a law firm on the North Tower's 85th floor a few years before -- on September 11.

"It was painful giving the interview -- so soon after the event," said McGrath, who was interviewed in early October. "I know that I didn't even get what I wanted to say out -- there were things at the time that I didn't even know I remembered."

Mollod said conducting the interviews took an emotional toll on him as well, with some of the stories becoming "embedded in my brain almost like I had experienced them."

But despite the emotional challenges -- not to mention the financial and logistical headaches -- Mollod and Dimarco say they have no regrets about their efforts.

"These stories read like incredible fiction. Yet this is fact, every detail of it is real," Dimarco said. "You're given a way to interact with this very intimate world that you otherwise would have no way of interacting with. And I think every American can benefit from interacting with the people who were directly involved in September 11."

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