Reading Rarities: What We Saw

This book is available fromAmazon.

Those who remember 9-11 will no doubt recall the huge demand for merch that immediately followed. The Longs Drugs I worked at during that time couldn’t keep American flags, or anything flag-related, in the store. What we did get would sell out by the end of the day. Naturally, 9-11 books, magazines, and T-shirts were highly sought after as well.

Then just as quickly demand dried up and most 9-11 merchandise was relegated to bargain bins, which is how I found this month’s Reading Rarity, What We Saw: The Events of September 11, 2001 In Words, Pictures, and Video. I think I paid a dollar for it at the sadly erstwhile Borders Books.

These shirts sold for $5 in 2001. Now they go for about $20 on eBay.

Anyway, while the book is packaged by CBS News, it sources magazine and news outlet articles, among them pieces from the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Washington Post. 

The book is long on variety, covering not only the day but its uncertain aftermath. One article takes us inside Tower Two right after Flight 11 hit Tower One, when those who could started making their way out of the building, watching the floor numbers shrink agonizingly slowly. When people stop moving, it’s hard not to feel cold, clammy dread.


Another article is by documentary filmmaker Jules Naudet, who, along with his brother, Gedeon, was making a documentary about twenty-one year old Tony Benetatos, a probationary firefighter, or “probie” at FDNY Ladder One when the attack occured. Ironically enough, up until the planes hit the buildings Naudet thought everything was turning out boring and mundane. Naudet and Benetatos were inside Tower One when Tower Two collapsed. His article doesn’t mention whether Benetatos survived, which, incidentally, he did.

Improvisation and going on instinct was the order of the day. NBC correspondent Harold Dow ducked into a subway station when Tower Two fell, and along with three others, took shelter in a shoe repair shop, closing the door behind him as the ashy cloud barreled past. It was from there that Dow called Dan Rather to report on his experiences.

Flight 93 data recorder found at the crash site. (History Channel)

Frequently mentioned in the book, and described in frightening detail, are the bodies that fell from the towers. People saw them so closely that they could see these people’s faces and tell what they were wearing. It might be twenty years later, but it’s still stomach-turning.

What We Saw doesn’t stay in New York, though. It takes readers to the Pentagon, which was also hit by the terrorists, and to the White House, where everyone was being evacuated. Naturally, President George Bush was taken to a secure location, and Americans waited with bated breath until he was able to address the nation. It was a bit of Gipper-esque bracing within the madness, and for a lot of people it lasted until Bush introduced the Patriot Act.

The Pentagon on 9-11. (PBS)

But I digress.

What We Saw comes with a DVD documentary hosted by former journalist Dan Rather. Well, it’s not so much as a documentary as it is a collection of news stories and 60 Minutes segments strung together. Among the plethora of interviews is a segment featuring Lisa Jefferson, a supervisor at GTE Airfone who talked to Todd Beamer right before he and the brave souls of Flight 93 thwarted the highjackers’ efforts to crash the plane into the White House.


There are numerous human interest stories about the lengths families and employers went to in finding out what happened to missing loved ones. Pictures and information were plastered all over New York City, on walls, in windows, on mailboxes, held by tearful relatives and friends. There are also interviews with children of the victims and footage of funerals. One lengthy sequence pays tribute to the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums, who played at so many funerals they started feeling as if they were living in the movie, Groundhog Day.

In the midst of the doom and horror of that time are fortitude and encouragement, not only from the first responders and other emergency personnel, but those who helped pick up the pieces after the attack was over. There were tremendous amounts of money raised for survivors and again, American flags selling like crazy, but there were those who camped out at Ground Zero to assist the work crews. A masseuse temporarily shut down her business so she could give backrubs to the workers, who put in such long hours that their backs would seize up.


Obviously, everyone had to eat. Restaurant owners donated meals, including a barbecue place whose owners drove in from Texas. People hauled in supplies, and women set up tents with water and snacks for free. Many of these women either lost someone or knew someone who lost someone, and all felt called to step in and help.

There was more than just food in these tents. Two items that were in high demand? Work boots and sweatshirts. Ground Zero was so hot for days after the towers fell that the workmen’s boots would just melt off their feet, and sweatshirts had to be discarded every few hours because of the ash and debris everywhere.

International Business Times

There’s a lot to take in here, and twenty years on, I appreciate What We Saw for capturing the kinds of details that only people who were there will remember. It’s a very full portrait of a time that was both unthinkable and inspiring, and as Miep Gies once said about the Nazi occupation of Europe, 9-11 is “always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bore witness.”

My post for the Tolkien Blog Party is coming up on Thursday. Thanks for reading, all…

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