Writing 9-11: The Costs and Benefits of Saying Yes
September 11, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Jessica DuLong
“What about another book?” The editor’s email subject line announced her overture. Who would turn down such an offer? Still, I hesitated.
She was encouraging me to expand the piece I had published about the spontaneous boat evacuation of nearly half a million people from Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I knew turning that into a book would require immersing myself for many months in the suffering and fear of a dark day in American history.
It would mean putting myself into the heads of people like ferry captain James Parese, whose over-and-back routine suddenly shifted that day from ferrying passengers to rescuing them. Instead of staying put on the safe shores of Staten Island, he made the choice, again and again, to drop lines, pull out, and steer his boat straight toward the incomprehensible hell unfolding at the tip of Manhattan.
I was wary of taking this on. A decade after the terrorist attacks, I still struggled with the psychological fallout from my service at Ground Zero.
For four days, I had worked as a marine engineer aboard fireboat John J. Harvey. After the planes struck, the retired 1931 FDNY vessel was called back into service to supply water to firefighters at the World Trade Center.
A pontoon boat operated by merchant marines had rushed me to the site. There, I spotted the Harvey among the assemblage of workboats stationed along the seawall. The outmoded, historic fireboat that had stolen my heart was back, pumping river water up through her deck pipes, doing the work for which she’d been built.
I warmed at the sight, but also braced myself. Once I’d set foot in that dust-coated lunar landscape, nothing could ever be the same.
A day after both towers collapsed, firefighters continued battling the blazes that would rage on for months. Ironworkers cut away at what had already been dubbed The Pile. They pulled up sections of steel whose molten ends, exposed to air, flared up once more.
Reporting to the captain for duty aboard Harvey on that late summer day, I saw snow. Powdery ash had settled on every surface. Paper, plastic bags, and debris had tangled into nearby trees—some standing, some toppled. Responders in hard hats, coveralls, turnout gear, and blue and green scrubs rushed around in this blizzard. It made no sense. That day, that dust became a part of me.
Ten years later, the editor’s book invitation left me torn. My work at the Trade Center still haunted me. Yet, as a journalist, a historian, a responder, a witness, and a patriot, I felt the weight of responsibility. The boat lift story is one of grace in response to brutality. This history matters. I felt obliged to collect and share it.
I knew well the deep immersion that book writing requires. At the time, I still felt depleted from writing My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America and the two years of book events that followed. That book had called upon me to merge memoir with 400 years of Hudson River history. Naively, I supposed that writing about the September 11 boat lift might be simpler since the events took place on a single day.
I accepted the editor’s offer. The writing took a toll.
Reporting on topics like violence and human suffering has consequences for the mental health of journalists and historians, a fact that has become more widely recognized in recent years. Organizations like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, established in 1991, continue to assemble and share additional resources like these: Resources for Journalists Coping With Trauma.
I’ve now spent a second decade swimming in the trauma of terrorism, reliving awful close-ups of the World Trade Center catastrophe at every stage of reporting, interviewing, writing, and revising. Some days it’s been hard to see past all the horror.
I wish I could say I took advantage of Dart’s resources and found constructive ways to cope. But that wouldn’t be true. In reality, this project has exacerbated existing anxiety issues and left me reeling through difficult periods of PTSD.
But… I’ve also relished the gifts it’s brought. Document this history has granted me the privilege of discovering how new, often unlikely, alliances formed between people who worked together to help.
Now, with U.S. society newly sensitized to the ruinous costs of erasing or eliding our brutal histories, I feel heightened urgency to share the generous efforts made by all the helpers that day. The remarkable choices they made reveal the power of collective action, make evident the force of good.
Somewhere in the middle of writing Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift, I discovered light amidst the darkness. Chronicling the series of lifesaving, selfless acts performed by countless everyday people revealed the reflexive human drive to aid those in need. Memorializing the maritime evacuation as a landmark event in our history is critical to our understanding the hope and humanity that so often comes in response to disaster. Stories of how people rallied together with the simple, clear recognition of human interconnectedness show us who we can be again. Seems like a good time to remember that.
Saved has come out in time for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The process of drafting the preface while struggling through the pandemic left me raw. But I hope this anniversary will be the one where I let go of some of the awfulness and embrace the good.
The boat rescues that grew into the largest-ever maritime evacuation upend common assumptions about human limitations. Mariners who improvised this massive, unplanned, successful effort showed who we are when we’re at our best. This antidote to divisiveness and fear offers an enheartening message for right now.
Recognizing the large-scale compassion and creativity that occurs in response to hatred and evil has expanded my belief in human potential.
Saying “yes” to that editor is what gave me that chance.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based author, editor, and collaborator/coach who helps writers develop a wide array of narrative nonfiction books. SAVED AT THE SEAWALL: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift is the definitive history of the largest ever waterborne evacuation. MY RIVER CHRONICLES: Rediscovering the Work that Built America won the 2010 American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award for memoir. A USCG-licensed marine engineer, DuLong served aboard retired 1931 NYC fireboat John J. Harvey for two decades, 11 years as chief.