What they went through

Our countrymen died real deaths on Sept. 11, and we need to listen to their last words.

Published August 23, 2006 10:34AM (EDT)

It was painful to hear the woman in anguish on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center, crying, "I'm going to die, aren't I? I'm going to die." Melissa Doi was 32, beautiful, with laughing eyes and black hair. She was lying on the floor of her office at IQ Financial, overwhelmed by smoke and heat, calling for help. And then there was Kevin Cosgrove on the 105th floor, moments before it collapsed, gasping for breath, saying, "We're young men, we're not ready to die." And then he screamed, "Oh my God" as the building started to collapse. It's in their voices, what they went through.

Those were two of the 1,613 calls to 911 released by New York City last week, on almost all of which the caller's voice was beeped out. The city argued that to hear persons in anguish in their last minutes constitutes an invasion of privacy. The truth is that the callers had no interest in privacy, they were desperate to be heard, and censoring them now is a last insult by a bureaucracy that failed to protect them in the first place.

They were people like us; we might have sat near them in a theater or restaurant, asked them for directions on the street. They went to work that fine Tuesday morning and suddenly found themselves facing the abyss, and the first thing we thought, seeing the burning buildings on TV, was "What is it like for the people in there?" We wanted to know.

Then, inevitably, politicians began to seize the day and turn it into a patriotic tableau starring themselves. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who does not appear in a leadership capacity in the reliable accounts of that morning, who was captured on videotape fleeing uptown, soon stepped into the TV lights and put on his public face, and a few days later the Current Occupant mounted the wreckage with bullhorn in hand and vowed vengeance, and the media was glad to focus on the martial moment, the flag waving over the wreckage, the theme of America united -- and the anguished voices from the towers were unheard, the people who fell from high floors and smashed into the pavement were not seen on American TV. The media averted its eyes from the reality of 9/11 and started looking for the message.

The best book on the subject, by the way, is "102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers," by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, two New York Times reporters who fashioned a plain narrative out of thousands of stories that took place in the time between the first strike and the collapse of the second tower. You read it, you're there.

Mr. Giuliani is still flying around giving speeches on leadership, knocking down a hundred grand per shot, getting standing ovations everywhere as a stand-in for the police and firemen who died in the towers. He has never faced up to his failure to prepare for the attack, even after the 1993 bomb explosion at the World Trade Center, when it was shown clearly that police and fire couldn't communicate with each other by radio. Eight years passed, little was done, and then came the 19 men with box cutters. The 911 operators took thousands of calls and had no information to give. Police helicopter pilots, who had a clear view of the infernos and could see that the buildings were going to collapse, couldn't get word to fire chiefs on the ground, who, unable to see the fire, sent their men up the stairs to die. Official bungling cost those men their lives.

In the end, what we crave is reality. The woman crying on the 83rd floor was real. Our countrymen died real deaths on a warm September morning, and then, to avenge them, even more have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our hearts, we know we're on the wrong road, the road to unreality, but the man says to stay the course. And now as November nears, congressmen who have supported the war, no questions asked, find it convenient to admit to having "questions" about it. "We are facing a difficult situation," they say. They are "troubled."

The woman who cried on the 83rd floor was more than troubled. She saw death. It is indecent for New York to stifle the voices of the people in the towers. The congressmen who deal so casually with life and death ought to sit down and listen to those phone calls.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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9/11 Iraq War New York City