I first heard about this book on a morning radio program commemorating the first anniversary of September 11th. Several passages were read aloud by an actor with a New York accent; I was hooked. I don’t usually review nonfiction but I begged the editor to let me review this book. It has been the best and the worst two weeks of my life. I must confess that I am drawn to disasters. I soak up the details and try to understand not only what happened but why it happened. My bookshelves hold Gary Pomerantz’s Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds, transcripts from airplane black boxes, titles with Titanic, Hindenberg, Hiroshima in them. I confess, I am a disaster addict and so I felt compelled to read Last Man Down.
This book isn’t about statistics or fine details pinpointing precise moments in the World Trade Center tragedy. This book is a firsthand account of what it was like to be inside the North Tower and knowing that the 100 stories above you were crashing down upon you. Last Man Down begins with a brief introduction that leads into a listing of all 343 firefighters who died that day - it goes on for pages. I came across the name of Angel Juarbe, Jr. You may remember him as the winner from the reality television show Murder in Small Town X. He was a sweet young man with a quiet dispostion. He had finished his shift on the morning of September 11, but instead of going home he joined his company. This book is full of anecdotes about firefighters’ dedication and loyalty and about our civilian idiocy. Many were the times I slapped my forehead and said “How can someone be so stupid?” When you get to the passage about the man who refused to leave his computer you’ll understand.
FDNY Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto, or "Pitch" as he is called, tells his tale in a conversational tone. I had the distinct feeling that Pitch was sitting at my kitchen table, covered in ash and soot, a mug of coffee in his hand, his gear strewn on the floor, personally telling me his story. Yes, it’s that intimate and immediate. Pitch rambles a bit, he repeats himself, he gets angry, but he tells his tale in a matter of fact way. It’s as though he’s still trying to work out what happened to him that morning.
Pitch’s personality comes through loud and clear – imagine the Bruce Willis character from those Die Hard movies – he does not like authority, bureaucratic red tape, nor does he suffer fools gladly. After the tower collapses one of the trapped rescue workers carries on and on about his dog, asking people to look for him, to take care of him. Pitch snaps at the man “Enough about the goddamn dog…[y]ou’ve got guys here with wives and kids…[l]et’s not memorialize a fucking dog!” He finds out later that the man was a canine cop and his canine partner was in the basement of the building that had just collapsed around them. There were many things that Pitch had to say that day in order to keep his men together, keep the survivors hopeful and calm.
Picciotto explains in detail about the rescue equipment each firefighter had to carry, and I had to try it out for myself. The firefighters who walked UP the stairs, past office workers going DOWN to safety, were carrying approximately 100 lbs. of equipment. I packed my knapsack full of canned goods, roughly 60lbs, and walked down and then up the seven flights to my apartment to try and get a feeling of what these men had to cope with. I even cut across each floor, copying Picciotto’s method of checking and clearing each floor before descending to the next level. I did this in a well-lit safe environment – no acrid smoke, no stinging ash, no crushing debris or threat of fire, and I came to the conclusion that firefighters are the modern day equivalent of the mythic Hercules. The passages that describe firefighters’ efforts to reach Picciotto are akin to a big screen Hollywood adventure. The events that happen after Pitch escapes the rubble are worthy of a Twilight Zone episode -- one of the firefighters who had been trapped with Pitch walked unnoticed back to his station. Pitch marvels at both the lack of communication between firefighers within the bounds of Ground Zero and the plethora of information being personally delivered to firefighters’ families all over the city.
After reading Last Man Down, I have two things to say. One, when you see a fire engine, lights flashing, sirens blaring, remember to pull over to the side of the road out of the way; it’s the one time people like you and I get to help our heroes. Two, firefighters, whatever they do get paid, it isn’t enough. I highly recommend this book for people who are still asking: What happened?