The 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is upon us, and with it the culmination of a decade that has seen an outpouring of books on the events of that horrific day. Now, Dennis Smith offers another strong contribution, A Decade of Hope. Smith, the author of the now-classic Report from Engine Co. 82 and a longtime veteran of the New York Fire Department, interviewed survivors as well as family members and friends of those who died in the attacks, recounting their experiences from many points of view to bring together a book that we called “a stirring tapestry of real-life heroes.”
Read more nonfiction books about 9/11 at Kirkus.
How did A Decade of Hope come about? And how did you select the people you interviewed?
In 2004, a close friend—a much-decorated New York City firefighter who lost his son at the World Trade Center on 9/11—asked me to get involved with him in creating an interim memorial at the south end of Ground Zero, on Liberty Street. Many of us at the time realized that the planned official 9/11 Memorial would be much delayed because of construction, political and public relations challenges. And so, I became a member of the board of directors of Tribute, a little gem of a museum to honor and commemorate the remembrance of 9/11. Located on Liberty Street, it tells the story of the day and of the people who were lost and also those who served.
In doing this work I came to know, or know of a large group of people, who had lost someone in their family on that horrific day, and I was inspired by their stories. They had created good works of one kind or another, and when I decided to write a book about the decade of difficult living for so many following the attacks of 9/11, I naturally called upon those whom I knew or remembered for one reason or another.
At the risk of forcing you to pick favorites, are there two or three stories that stand out in your mind as being particularly emblematic of how people experienced and responded to the events of 9/11?
I cannot say there is a favorite, though I will say that every reader will see that some are more dramatic than others. Still, there are 21 interviews in which someone lost a loved one on 9/11—one lost two brothers, one lost two sons. I think we all recognize that life is sacred, and we mourn, usually painfully, the passing of a loved one. But to lose a loved one in the center of what might be America’s greatest tragedy, a historic, brutal and totally unexpected event, brings with it a personal drama that is undeniably shared with the rest of the world.
Yet, one of the most emotionally moving of the interviews for me is also one of the most lacking in drama, for Akiko Takahashi conveys such clarity of thought and profound meaning to every sentence about her life since the loss of her father that it would be difficult to read this interview and not have it enter your consciousness forever.
And then there is Ada Dolch, who was the principal of a high school just a stone’s throw from the South Tower and who had to fulfill her responsibilities in protecting hundreds of her students while consciously suppressing the concern of knowing that her sister Wendy worked high up in the North Tower. No one will ever forget how her love for her little sister brought her finally to Afghanistan in a travel of homage and contribution—bringing meaning to the death of her sister, who suffered her end within an event that is so hard for everyone to understand.
We’re at the 10th anniversary of 9/11, as the very title of your book tells us. How should we best commemorate the date?
The 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 is a milestone that will be recognized according to how one internalized the events of that fateful day. It will be a difficult day for many, especially family members. It will be a solemn and introspective day for many others, like myself. The memories will loom large, and the memories, even after a decade, will convey profound feelings of loss.
I will go to Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with my friends from the New York Fire Department. It would not feel right for many like myself to commemorate the day without some manifestation of faith. It is helpful to turn to Providence to explain the inexplicable, to soothe this huge reminder of uncertainty, realizing how life can change utterly for so many in so few minutes.
I will go for a few hours to the Tribute center on Liberty Street, and there I will meet some of the subjects in A Decade of Hope, who now serve as volunteer docents, taking people around the site of ground zero and sharing their most personal connections to 9/11 and the memories of the one they lost.
What is the next milestone date for us to remember 9/11? Is it 11 years? Fifteen? Twenty? The hardest thing for me is to recognize that, for so many of my friends, the next milestone date will be tomorrow.