Free Will

This New York Times article offers us a glimpse of those last, desperate moments before the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11:

“After about 15 minutes, Frank returned to the corner office,” Ms. Serpe said in a statement she provided to the De Martini family. “He was covered with gray soot — even his hair looked gray with smoke — and his eyes were completely red. Frank then told us he found a clear stairwell, but we would have to climb over to it.”

Among those leaving was Ms. De Martini. She said she urged her husband to come along, and he assured her he would be coming down behind her. “How could he come down the stairs and step over his secretary — or anyone?” she asked. “He wouldn’t have done that. He did what he had to do.”

I’ve concluded that, had I been in or near the World Trade Center on 9/11, there is probably no sequence of events through which I would have survived.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Approached it from many angles. Put aside the mindset of invincibility that afflicts most young men, and tried to immerse myself in the scenarios described by survivors.

Sure, I like to believe I can talk, think or fight my way out of any situation, and that cautionary statements such as “it could’ve happened to you” are only true in the abstract sense. And I want to believe that, whether I was an office worker, a firefighter or just some bystander helping out, some observation or intuition would have led me to conclude at the last moment that it was time to get out.

But reading the story of Mr. De Martini and others adds a dose of realism that brings home the great horror and tragedy of 9/11. Those victims never had any warning. There was no room, in their last moments, for self-serving intuition. Indeed, they were caught following a basic human instinct — to help one another at a moment of crisis. Theirs were acts of altruistic heroism few people could have avoided.

The helplessness with which those heroes rushed into harms way, and stayed there, coupled with our realization that we would have likely done the same, is truly terrifying.

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