This article was originally published on Sept. 11, 2014.
The day after Sept. 11, 2001, I got to interview my cousin Theresa, who escaped from the 57th floor of Tower I after it was hit by the plane. Thirteen years later, I read the story I wrote for the Poynter website based upon that interview. It gave me chills, not because of the way it was written or constructed, but for the sheer drama and terror of the catastrophe it describes. In my lifetime I can think of no story, no breaking news event — not even the Kennedy assassination — that affected me so deeply, that changed the way I view the world.
Screenwriter Robert McKee teaches that every good story needs an “inciting incident,” that sudden, unexpected moment that rips through the fabric of normal life and changes almost everything. On “Breaking Bad,” a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, gets a diagnosis that he is dying of cancer. To make money for his family, he becomes a drug lord. As the pitch for the story described it: Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.
With a story as big as 9/11, some reporters decided to go small. Jim Dwyer of The New York Times, for example, decided on a series of stories that were hiding inside small objects from Ground Zero: a squeegee used by a group to escape from an elevator; a family photograph that fluttered to the dusty ground; a Styrofoam water cup given by one stranger to another. He based his technique on a strategy he learned from an editor: “The bigger, the smaller.”
When I interviewed Theresa, I was struck by her reflection upon the smaller details in the dystopian landscape her workplace had become: the grapefruit rolling back and forth in a cart after the plane hit the building, the rosary beads in her purse, her sensible shoes.
At some point I realized that the story should be told from her point of view, not narrated by me. This technique, often used in oral histories or “as told to” biographies, sometimes earns the negative name of “ghostwriting.” But I believe it can be a special, even noble form of journalism, when expressed with transparent standards, and when it attends to the mission of giving voice to someone with an important story to tell.
I don’t have a list of standards I applied 13 years ago, or even if I had them in mind at that troubling time. But re-reading the story, I can see (and hear) some of the things I was doing. Here is a list of them, translated as standards:
1. Cut and clarify when necessary, but don’t replace your source’s vocabulary or voice with your own.
2. When helpful, translate the various scenes into chronological order.
3. Think of the eyes of your source as a camera. See what she sees and then pass those distinctive images along to others.
4. Interrogate all the senses. (I’m struck as I re-read this how alert were Theresa’s senses. In this fairly short piece, she recounts things she saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched.)
5. In addition to the physical senses, tap in to the emotional ones: confusion, fear, horror, friendship, gratitude, family.
6. Through your interview, lend your source the essential tools of storytelling. As described by Tom Wolfe, they are character details, scenes in a sequence, dialogue, and point of view.
7. As you tell the story on behalf of the source, read it back to her, or if your policy permits it, share a draft. On occasion you will hear “I didn’t mean that,” or “I wouldn’t say it that way,” which is a doorway to revision, correction, and clarification.
8. Talk with your source about why your think the story is important. In the best moments, you will be able to embrace a shared sense of mission and purpose, in this case, what it was like to survive an act of terrorism that changed America and the world.
(At least two of the characters in the story have passed away: Theresa’s parents, my aunt and uncle Millie and Peter Marino. I dedicate this piece to their memory and to all those we lost on 9/11.)
By Theresa Marino Leone (as told to her first cousin, Roy Peter Clark)
I got to work about 20 minutes to 9. I told my boss I like to get to work a half hour early. But that’ll never happen again. I work in Building One, or what used to be Building One. I work for Lawyers’ Travel, and I’m attached to a law firm with offices on the 57th Floor.
I hadn’t had breakfast yet, just a cup of coffee, so I went to the cafeteria on the 57th Floor, saw my friends, said hello to everyone, and was just about to eat my English muffin.
We heard a loud explosion, and the whole building started to sway. We knew something had happened and it wasn’t good. I remember these grapefruits from a stand that were rolling back and forth, back and forth.
For years we’d had these fire drills, but at a moment like this, no one was sure what to do. I ran about 30 feet to my office and grabbed my purse. My cell phone, my rosary beads, my life is in that purse. I looked in the corridor and saw about eight people. We knew each other and headed for the staircase.
Now this is a big building with so many floors that when you take the elevator up, you go to the 44th Floor and then change elevators and take the local up to the 57th.
In the stairwell there was room for two people, so you could go down side by side. There was no smoke on the 57th, but there was a smell that I now realize was gasoline. Our staircase went down only as far as the 44th. We walked past two banks of elevators. I looked to the right and could see smoke coming out of one of them.
We went down the next staircase, and thank God, the lights were on, we could see, and talk to each other. Amazingly there was no pushing or panic or people getting trampled. Thank God, too, that He made me tall, five foot nine, because I can’t wear heels, only a pair of black, very sensible shoes.
Then above us, we heard these firefighters say, “Move to the right. Injured coming down.” This meant we had to get in single file and along the way I lost track of all the people I started out with.
When the injured walked down past us, you couldn’t tell if they were black or they were white. They were all charred with skin just hanging off their bodies. And the look on their faces, they looked like the walking dead. Remember, we didn’t know what had happened. Our cell phones didn’t work, but some beepers flashed and word spread that a plane had hit our building, and that a jet plane had crashed into the other building. It was such a beautiful day. At first I thought maybe it was an accident with a helicopter, but two commercial jets?
I didn’t know what we were going to face as we made our way down, a fireball in the stairwell, or what. I’m a 40-year-old Italian-American girl, so I took out my rosary beads, the ones I got at St. Francis of Assissi Church when my mother was sick, and said to God, “I don’t want to die in this building.” The lights were still on. But alarms were going off everywhere.
I hadn’t had breakfast, so my stomach was empty, and at one point I felt my knees buckle. I said to myself, “If I faint, I’m gonna die.” So I held on to my rosary beads, and I tried to turn to the girls behind me to make a little joke. At one platform there were five or six firefighters. “Here, take a drink of water,” said one of them, and I took a sip. “God bless you,” I told him. I now realize that those guys are probably dead.
When we got down to the 10th Floor, water began seeping down the walls and under the doors. As we moved down to the 8th and 7th Floors it was getting deeper and deeper, until we were walking through maybe six inches of water.
Finally, when we got down to the Concourse Level, the cops were pointing us down toward the stairs near the escalator. “Don’t look outside,” they said. The Concourse is surrounded by glass walls, maybe 50 feet high, and of course when he said, “Don’t look,” I looked. What I saw was something out of Beirut. Glass, debris, pockets of fire everywhere.
As we made our way down the steps to the ground level, we were soaking wet. We were walking in water up past our ankles, and water was poring down on us–like walking in a soaking rainstorm, but inside. Firefighters had to lift some women who had taken their shoes off over the broken glass. Thank God I had on my sensible shoes.
I saw my friend Indra, the cashier in the cafeteria. I grabbed her. We ran toward World Trade Five across Church Street toward Broadway. We were now physically outside. “Keep going. Keep going,” said a cop, “there may be another plane on the way.”
A couple of blocks away we finally stopped to catch our breath and looked up and saw that the building was on fire. We didn’t see any bodies, but we were starting to see people who were bleeding. I saw two ladies who are housekeepers in the building, Miranda and Teresa. My cell phone didn’t work. From the time we felt the crash, it had probably taken us 45 minutes to get out of the building. In 15 minutes it would fall to the ground.
We decided to walk another six blocks to my father’s apartment on the East River, at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. We were buzzed in and took the elevator to the 23rd Floor. My father was standing in the hallway on the phone with my husband, Gary, who was frantic, up in the Bronx.
At least Gary knew I was safe. All the girls called home. “Come on,” my father said, “have a drink.” At that moment, anyway, we preferred his coffee to liquor.
The girls lived in Brooklyn and decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I had to go and see my mother, who lived about 10 minutes away in the apartment complex where I grew up, Knickerbocker Village. I knew she would be going crazy. When I got to Madison and St. James, I looked up and realized I couldn’t see the Twin Towers. All I saw was smoke. I didn’t know that they didn’t exist any more. I remember years ago looking out the window and watching as they were being built.
My mother wanted me to eat something. So what’s new. She’d make me cereal or an egg, but I settled on cold chicken cutlets from the night before. I had just lost 30 pounds and was on a diet, but who cares. You know, it was the best chicken cutlet I ever had.
I know it’s crazy, but I just wanted to go home, from the Lower East Side to the Bronx where Gary was waiting for me. I still had my sensible shoes, so I decided to start walking. I figured I could catch the train or the bus as I headed north. I walked to 23rd Street and then to 59th. Along the way there were nice people on the streets, nobody was trying to gouge you. They gave you a cup of water. Or a Handi Wipe. I stopped once and bought a pretzel, but I thought if I stopped walking I’d never be able to move again. I was just so happy to be alive.
It’s not my usual part of town, but I walked all the way to 125th Street. I figured that, all in all, I may have walked eight miles. I was ready to walk over the Triboro Bridge to the Bronx if I had to.
Thank God, the trains were running from 125th Street. I decided to get on the #6 train. A lady moved over for me. “I’m sorry for the way I smell,” I told her. “I walked from the World Trade Center.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I walked from 19th Street.”
When I got out of the station, I thought I couldn’t take another step. Just then, Gary turned the corner in our silver Chevy.
This is like a bad dream. When I see people I start to cry. I realize that my favorite picture of Gary and me that I kept at my desk is gone. When I see the news and understand what happened, I realize that I was 15 minutes from that building falling down on me. Today on the subway, I looked over the shoulder of a lady reading the newspaper, and when I saw the pictures, I started to cry.
My legs are pretty sore. But I’m a walker and will be OK. Gary and I went to Union Square Park where people are creating a memorial, leaving flowers and notes. One note said, “Now is the time when we should be so proud to be American.” And I thought, “You know that’s true.”
I know I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life. I’m going to save three things from my experience: my cup from a guy who gave me water. A used Handi Wipe. And what’s left of my sensible shoes.
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.