Writing 9-11: The Costs and Benefits of Saying Yes

September 11, 2021 § 6 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.

A Review of Rebecca McClanahan’s In the Key of New York City

September 4, 2020 § Leave a comment

keynycBy Vivian Wagner

Rebecca McClanahan’s In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays is an exploration of what it means to live in a place, and, in fact, what it means to live at all. It’s a haunting book, with many detailed glimpses into the everyday realities of apartment-dwelling, rent-paying, and meaning-making in a city that’s at once glorious and difficult. This book is a love letter to New York—a letter that, perhaps, both we and the city need now more than ever.

I read this book in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic, and as I read, I couldn’t help but think of New York in the grips of the virus, reeling from grief, loss, and confusion. And yet, despite everything, it’s also a city discovering, as it always seems to, a spirit of shared humanity and community.

New York is somehow able to continually remake itself, and McClanahan’s essays document and celebrate this creativity and transformative power. Together, these essays narrate a period when she and her husband, Donald, move from their home in North Carolina to the city to try to make a new life for themselves. Her essays speak of loneliness and disconnection, even as they explore the small connections that the couple is gradually able to make with the people around them. If at first McClanahan feels like she doesn’t belong in the city, over time she comes to see that everyone there is connected, and everyone has a role to play, a story to tell, a song to sing.

The collection begins with an essay called “Signs and Wonders,” which focuses on the small, everyday signs that we seek out to make sense of our lives—and the casual miracles we might find if we look closely enough. It’s an essay about reading and interpretation, and about survival in a peculiar, bewildering place where cut flowers cost less than food. As Donald says, with an inimitable optimism and cheerfulness that we come to know well in this book: ”We’ll just have to eat flowers.”

It’s a kind of Mrs. Dalloway moment, and the party here is, we learn, the tumultuous years that this couple will spend in New York, getting to know the city and themselves, and ultimately being transformed in the process.

McClanahan’s book is haunted by 9/11, as a pivotal, traumatic moment that almost brings the city and its people to their knees. These essays, though, show how 9/11 is also a moment when residents pull together and create a future for themselves and each other, through acts of compassion and kindness both small and large. The essays almost all touch on 9/11 in some way, often tangentially, as if it’s an event that can’t be looked at head-on, a story that can only be told aslant.

The days leading up to the event are narrated in an essay called “‘And We Shall Be Changed’: September 7-11, 2001,” which focuses, among other things, on catching a stray squirrel that falls into the apartment and needs to be rescued. As McClanahan releases the squirrel into the park on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the only hint that something is amiss in the city is the wailing of sirens in the background. At the end of the essay, though, we see not smoke billowing from buildings, but a free-at-last squirrel darting up a tree:

Up, up, stopping at each branch to look down, as if he wants to tell me something. His tail quivers, his head bobs and then, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he’s gone. I watch until there’s no sign of him anywhere, just a shiver in the highest branch, beside a patch of blue, blue sky.

It’s a powerful moment of transformation and, not insignificantly, disappearance. Ultimately, this is an essay about falling into an unknown and sometimes terrifying future—a future that, nonetheless, inevitably changes us. In moments like this, our old selves, like a squirrel darting up a tree, fall away and disappear.

In this way, we shall be changed.

The essays in this collection garner much of their power from McClanahan’s strong sense of musicality and her skillful way with sound and phrase. We learn that she lives next door to a musician, and we hear in several essays about the music wafting through the walls and serving as a kind of unexpected, beautiful accompaniment to their daily lives. McClanahan’s writing is infused with her sense of music, and the “key of New York City” becomes shorthand for the rhythm and notes that make up a life.

While reading this book, I found myself becoming hopeful that New York—and perhaps all of us—can and will survive whatever traumas come our way. Nothing will be easy. There will be cancer, affairs, dying baby birds, urine on the sidewalk. There will be tragedies both personal and universal. But we’ll survive by being there for each other, by listening to one another’s stories, and by cultivating kindness, even toward those who seem to be strangers on the far side of a seemingly-uncrossable divide.

As McClanahan says in an essay called “Hello Stranger,” “Maybe it takes a stranger to wake you up—to your city, your loved ones, your life.” These days, we’re all strangers in a strange place. Perhaps the best—and the only—thing we can do is greet one another, smile behind our masks, and look for whatever twinkle manages to find its way into the eyes.


Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising, and the recent chapbook, Spells of the Apocalypse.


The Numbers of the Day

September 11, 2015 § 27 Comments

Author Photo-Larger B&W-2014A guest post from Steven Church, marking the day:

The date was Sept. 11, 2014 and I’d just left the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn after watching the 11:30 sea lion show. Not far away, across the Hudson River, in Manhattan, thousands of other people were celebrating the 13th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. Celebrating is not the right word. Remembering. Grieving. Thinking. Trying to contain it in some way. And if collective thought has a weight, like barometric pressure, it seemed as if I could feel the memories hanging in the air that day like a rain that wouldn’t fall; people were quieter, the world a little slower and more patient, perhaps. Or maybe this is just the meaning I stitched to that day in the fabric of my memory.

After the zoo, I walked down and around the block, past the Brooklyn Library with its impressive edifice, and found a café where I could have a beer and a pork sandwich and use the café’s free wi-fi service to catch up on my facts about Prospect Park.

Many people remember, for example, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” on Jan. 15, 2009 when Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River after slamming into a flock of Canadian geese shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport.

Not as many people, perhaps, remember that the geese had come from Prospect Park. And fewer people know that “snarge” is the word for the residue left on a plane or in its engine after an encounter with a bird. I didn’t know this, or that snarge can clog an airplane engine and, if there’s enough snarge, it can disable the engine permanently. Nor did I know that, one year later, in response to the snarge-related Miracle on the Hudson, federal authorities would authorize the capture and gassing of 1,235 Canadian geese in New York City parks, four hundred of them alone from Prospect Park. Authorities also suffocated 1739 goose eggs by coating their shells with corn oil.

I sat in that café and read the stories and did the math and thought, that’s a lot of dead birds. In all 2,974 geese or eggs were exterminated during the program. Next I looked up the official number of dead in the 9/11 attacks: 2996. A difference of twenty-two. The dead geese alone, if we assume an average weight on the low end of seven pounds, would weigh 8,645 pounds, or almost four-and-a-half tons.

A woman sitting across from me was reading a medical terminology textbook, scribbling notes, and occasionally talked to herself, mumbling the music of her discipline. She existed there, in the bustling middle of this world, and seemed to be studying for a test.

This world is full of tests, I thought, and troubling facts that can’t always be calculated, tallied with numbers in the margins. I thought about the weight of grief and the weight of loss and about the other side of miracles. I thought about my children, 2,922 miles away and how, the day before, my son had texted me to tell me that his bus was running late, expecting me to be there for him, and how I had to remind him that I wouldn’t be there, that his grandparents would pick him up.

“I’m in New York,” I said.

“Oh, right. I forgot,” he said, pausing for a moment. “You’re just usually here.”


That day, thirteen years ago, isn’t even a word. We don’t have language to contain the loss. We can barely name it, label it, or control it.

That day is a number. A collection of numbers. Code for a loss we cannot fully calculate.

Numbers dead. Numbers wounded. Numbers gassed or greased. Number of years at war. Numbers saved. My son, thirteen years old now, has never lived in a country that wasn’t at war.

That day in 2014 I felt the sinking weight of all the numbers that define us—phone numbers, social security numbers, confirmation numbers, account numbers, PIN numbers, patient numbers, and mileage numbers.

After lunch, I stopped to sit on a bench in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Briefly, reluctantly, the cloudy quilt of sky opened up and rained, but only for a few minutes, just enough to break the grip of humidity over the city. The people picnicking on the lawn had just started to scramble for cover when the rain seemed to rise back up into the clouds and hang in the air like a beaded curtain, waiting to part again and finally, softly fall.


Steven Church is the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, Ultrasonic. His work has been published in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and elsewhere. He’s a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.

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