September 9, 2021

This post is published in partnership with our friends at Nieman Storyboard.

As the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 looms, I am reminded of one of my favorite anthologies of journalism: “Eyewitness to History,” edited by British scholar John Carey. The book offers historical narratives that extend from ancient chronicles to 20th-century news reports.

The key organizing principle is embedded in the word “eyewitness.” The events described were witnessed — or claimed to have been witnessed — by human beings (from civilians to famous authors) who were on the scene.

The standards for such narratives have evolved over centuries. There are countless cases of fabrication and fictionalization, more discouraged and detectable in the age of digital journalism. John Hersey, the author of “Hiroshima” and an eyewitness to the aftermath of the atomic bombing, argued that the legend on the license, at least for those who claimed to practice journalism, was that “none of this was made up.”

That means personal accounts of those who lived or witnessed a story — whether memoir, autobiography, or oral history — often require the guiding help of a professional author to ensure necessary accuracy and clear writing. I am thinking of all those celebrities, politicians, and sports figures who turned to “ghostwriters” to fact-check and shape their narratives for them. I have always thought “ghostwriter” was an impolite name for such a scribe. I prefer the “as told to” explainer, especially when the helping writer is named and the methodology is made transparent.

Of course, much of our more standard narrative journalism relies on accounts from people who were on the scene of newsworthy events. We are, in essence, the transparent ghostwriters of history.

The standards and practices for “as told to” narratives are less fully formed than other kinds of journalism and nonfiction. But the form has expanded with online and self-publishing. Working with eyewitnesses who want to tell their own stories also expands options for journalists in a challenging news economy.

Some of my best lessons came from listening to my cousin, Teresa Marino Leone, who was at work in the north tower of the World Trade Center when it was hit by the first jet on the morning of Sept. 11. Twenty years after first working with Theresa to write “Rosary Beads and Sensible Shoes,” those lessons remain as relevant as ever. I offer them here, followed by the original piece and an epilogue from Theresa.

1. It helps to interview the source (eyewitness) when the memory is fresh, but only if that source, traumatized by the event, finds the sharing of her story helpful to recovery.

2. Use a recording device to best capture the words, cadence, syntax, and emotional level of the eyewitness.

3. Some publishing houses, newsrooms and sites ban the sharing of drafts with sources. In this case, the source is more of a collaborator, sacrificing her privacy for a public good. When I write in this form, I share key drafts with the source, at times, reading the draft aloud. My key questions: “Do I have this right?” and “Does it sound like you?”

4. The flavor of speech can be captured without overdependence upon verbal punctuation, dialect, accent or needless repetition.

5. When it comes to stories as big as 9/11, I cling to the advice of the late, great Jim Dwyer, who wrote two books about attacks on the World Trade Center. He preached “the bigger, the smaller.” Jim put that into practice by writing focused narratives about objects that had stories hiding inside of them: a squeegee of a window washer used by a group stuck in an elevator to escape; a family photo that fluttered down into the rubble, unscathed; the plastic water cup given to my cousin Theresa during her long walk home. Theresa is mentioned in the book Dwyer wrote with Kevin Flynn: “102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.”

6. Not all sources will notice or remember the telling detail, but Theresa certainly did, and the reporter must ask. Her sacred objects include her rosary beads, comfortable shoes, Handi Wipes, and a water cup. But there is also the booze offered to her by her father, the delicious chicken cutlet that had been prepared by her mother, and, the one I best remember: the grapefruit rolling back and forth in the cart after the plane hit the tower.

The quest for such details has endured for centuries, as any historical anthology of reportage will reveal. In the introduction to “Eyewitness to History,” Carey writes:

This book is … full of unusual or indecorous or incidental images that imprint themselves scaldingly on the mind’s eye: the ambassador peering down the front of Queen Elizabeth I’s dress and noting the wrinkles; … the Tamil looter at the fall of Kuala Lumpur upending a carton of snowy Slazenger tennis balls; … Pliny watching people with cushions on their heads against the ash from the volcano; Mary, Queen of Scots, suddenly aged in death, with her pet dog cowering among her skirts and her head held on by one recalcitrant piece of gristle; the starving Irish with their mouths green from their diet of grass.

Carey uses the word “indecorous” to describes those historical details. That should not dismiss the importance of decorum in choosing certain details. Theresa is shocked by the encounter with burn victims being aided by first responders. But I am struck and grateful that journalists and photojournalists shielded us from unthinkably gruesome encounters with what was left of the bodies of the dead.

7. There are always surprises in revisiting an old narrative, whether it is a Shakespeare play, a news story, or a text that you wrote yourself many years ago. If you are old enough and have written enough, I promise there will come a day when you will find a story with your name on it that you have no memory of having written.

Each reader brings an autobiography to the reading of any story. But, over 20 years, the text may look the same, but our transaction with that text will change. Since 9/11, we have suffered a paralyzing recession, a president who was impeached twice, not to mention the current pandemic. We should not dismiss narratives from the past as “old news.” Better to think of them as little time machines we now experience with the benefit of new knowledge. Reports may point us there, but it is the story that puts us there.

8. There is an old, misunderstood saying that speaks to the value of “giving voice to the voiceless.” But people don’t need journalists to have their say, especially in the age of social media. That said, I feel a special power when a journalist asks a person to share a story, and supports the source, whether it is in a telling quote or in a more fully developed narrative. My sense is that we need more of this in journalism or other public writing. This does not limit the need for checking, double-checking, fact-checking with reference to other sources of information (such as photos and public records). Over two decades and multiple publications of Theresa’s story, no reader or expert has come forward to contradict it.

9. Finally, there arises with the passage of time “What ever happened to….?” Theresa was 40 on 9/11 and now is 60, fully capable of looking back and reflecting upon what she still remembers and what it has meant to her over time. My friend, St. Petersburg artistic director, Bob Devin Jones, reflecting upon the collective experiences and losses imposed by the pandemic, put it this way: “There are no periods. There are only commas. It’s all life.” Experienced and remembered.

Rosary Beads and Sensible Shoes

Teresa Marino Leone about 10 years before Sept. 11, 2001 (left) and a more recent photo. (Courtesy)

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.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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