Mitchell Zuckoff on Writing His 9/11 Magnum Opus

July 10, 2019 | 2 books mentioned 7 min read

The seniors graduating from high school this year know what 9/11 is. They know four planes, two towers, 3,000-plus victims, 19 terrorists, Osama bin Laden. They know all of that because they were taught it in history classes. Because, to them, that’s all it is: history.

With each passing year, the terrorist attacks that happened on the bright blue morning of September 11, 2001 become more of a history lesson than a lived experience. This year, most high school seniors were born in 2001. Eighteen years later, they have the facts memorized, but often fail to understand the emotional and lived experience of that day.

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, a new book by former Boston Globe reporter and current Boston University professor Mitchell Zuckoff, aims to fix that. Fall and Rise reports the facts, but Zuckoff also weaves the lives of people affected by 9/11 to create a narrative not frequently seen on cable news channels or in documentaries.

Fall and Rise shares stories about pilots, passengers, and aviation professionals linked to American Airlines Flights 11 and 77, and United Airlines Flights 93 and 175. He reveals stories about Mohammed Atta and other terrorists. Zuckoff also dives into the stories of New Yorkers and other Americans who experienced that day in different ways. The result is a woven story that puts the humanity back into a day the history books won’t forget.

I spoke with Zuckoff about what he was doing the day of the attacks, what followed, and how a Boston Globe feature published five days after the attacks turned into an essential book more than 6,000 days later.

The Millions: What was the day of September 11, 2001 like for you?

Mitchell Zuckoff: I was on book leave from the Boston Globe trying to write my first book. When the first plane went in, I didn’t think much of it. It could have been an accident. When the second plane went in, I ran to the phone and it was ringing as I got there. Globe editor Mark Morrow was on the other line and said my book leave was over.

He told me to come to the paper and it became apparent that I was going to be in what we call the control chair to write the lead story for that day. It became a matter of trying to figure out what was going on by taking feeds from several of my colleagues, working closely with the aviation reporter, Matthew Brelis, who took the byline with me. It was an intense and confusing day.

This was personal, on top of everything, because two of the planes took off about a mile from the Globe office at Logan International Airport.

TM: You mention the confusion. When did it become clear to you that it was a coordinated terrorist attack?

MZ: I think when the second plane went in. I was still home. When the first plane went in, we didn’t know what size it was. There was speculation that it was some sightseeing plane that got confused. Then there was no way, 17 minutes apart, that two planes were going to hit two towers accidentally. When I got in my car, we didn’t know about the flight heading to the Pentagon or United 93.

TM: What exactly were you looking for in real time during an event like this?

MZ: Really, what we do on any story. We were trying to answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of it in as much detail as possible. I was just trying to process it all. My desk is an explosion of papers and printers and notes from reporters. We want it to come out so our readers can digest it in a meaningful way.

TM: I was in seventh grade and in Arizona at the time, so I had no clue what was going on. I was hours back—

MZ: That’s significant. Really significant. Folks on the West Coast, by the time they woke up, it was essentially over. People on the East Coast were watching the Today Show or running to CNN to watch it unfold. It’s a different experience.

TM: I remember it as my mother waking me up for school. She said something, and to this day I remember it as being “They’re attacking us.” I always second-guessed myself, but as you said it was something being reported.

MZ: That would have been a good thing to say.

TM: As the day continued to unfold, how much of a rush was it to finish the initial report out there?

MZ: The adrenaline is flying. We had a rolling deadline because we knew we had as many editions as we needed. The first probably left my hands at 6:00 p.m. I continued to write through the story as it continued to unfold. There were little details—little edits like finding better verbs—that continued to be changed until about 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m.

You can’t unwind after that. You walk around the newsroom waiting until it comes off the presses. I needed to let the adrenaline leave because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

TM: Then that first week, and this may be a dumb question, but how much did the events consume your writing life?

MZ: Completely. I wrote the lead story again the next day. I came back in and it was understood I would do it again. The next day, on Thursday the 13th, I approached the editors with the idea that I could keep doing the leads, but I had an idea for a narrative I could have done for Sunday’s paper. I needed to dispatch some reporters to help me, but I pitched them to weave a narrative. I wanted to weave together six lives: three people on the first plane and three people from New York: one who got out, one who we didn’t know, and a first responder.

That consumed me all day Thursday and Friday reporting it with those reporters. Then writing it Friday into Saturday for the lead feature in the Sunday paper.

TM: That’s what became the backbone of Fall and Rise. But, at the time, you were already reporting the facts. What was it like going into the humanity of those affected less than a week after the attacks?

MZ: Satisfying in a really deep way. I felt, as much as I valued writing the news, I felt we could do something distinctive and lasting with this narrative. I think all of us—not just reporting the news, but consuming the news—all of us were so inundated with information.

I felt we needed to reflect on the emotion of the moment. By talking about the pilot John Oganowsky and the other folks I focused in on, I felt it could be a bit cathartic. We were all numb and in shock. But this could help.

TM: Did you talk to the people in the narrative or was it strictly the other reporters?

MZ: It was the reporters. I was focused on telling the story of Mohammad Atta. I gave myself that assignment. I was guiding my four teammates to some extent. If someone came up with an important detail or timestamp, I would ask the other reporters to follow up with questions about that particular moment to build around it. I didn’t talk to the families until much later.

TM: When was the first time you talked to survivors or the families of victims?

MZ: I talked to some back then. I was teamed up two weeks after the attacks with Michael Rezendes, who was on the Spotlight team, to write about the terrorists. So, at that point, I wasn’t talking a lot with the families—I did some in 2001 and 2002—but really my deep dive into the families didn’t start until five years ago when I really began working on this book.

TM: What did focusing on the terrorists do to you mentally and emotionally?

MZ: It took a lot out of me. We were really trying to instill the journalistic impartiality to it. But you can’t be objective about this sort of thing. We could be impartial. We couldn’t be exactly sure of who these guys were. We had their identities, but we were aware people use false identities or other’s identities. We had to enforce this impartiality to it. We had to be detached in our work even as we were grieving in our hearts.

TM: With the toll it takes, why continue to write about 9/11 after all these years?

MZ: Exactly that reason: because it does take a toll. The way I process things is to write about them. I didn’t really have a let down for months. I was focused on the work before letting the emotion in. It never really left me. I was still talking about this story to my students. I was still talking about this to my family. There are certain stories that will never leave, but I have to instill something of value into it. I wanted to write something that outlasts me.

TM: You’ve had books come out over the years that weren’t related to 9/11—most notably 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. This comes out nearly 18 years later. What was the process like throughout all these years?

MZ: I was not writing directly on Fall and Rise during those years. I was working on those other books and projects. It was on a back processor in my mind. The lede story from 9/11 hangs in my office at Boston University. It’s in the corner of my eye. I think it was always playing in the back of my mind.

Once I dove into it in 2014, it was all consuming. It was the deepest dive I have ever taken on a story. As much as I care about all of the work I’ve done, I kind of knew I would never tell a more important story than this. I had to respect the stories of the people telling me about the worst day of their lives. That responsibility was with me day and night for these past five years.

TM: What were the families’ responses to a reporter coming to ask about the worst day of their lives after all this time?

MZ: It amazed me because overwhelmingly people said yes. There were some who understood what I was doing, but told me they couldn’t go there again. They couldn’t revisit that day. The ones who said yes were amazing. I know I was tearing open a wound. A lot of the interviews go for hours and hours. There were moments of weeping and I have no problem acknowledging I did so along with them.

TM: These stories aren’t necessarily widely known and now they’re preserved in this book. It’s so important because now 9/11 may just seem like an event students study in textbooks. Eighteen years…your college freshmen were born the year it happened or the year after, I suppose. How does this generation react to it?

MZ: I teach really engaged journalism students. I’m not sure how the generation as a whole reacts to it. My students approach it with curiosity and a little bit of uncertainty because they didn’t experience it. They are well-read and aware of things, but for them it is a little like Pearl Harbor. They know who was involved and can cite numbers. They can say 3,000 dead, 9/11, four hijacked planes, 19 hijackers. They got the test questions down very well. They don’t have the human connection or that feeling for it that I wish they did. I hope that’s what my book can do.

is a Phoenix-based writer whose criticism and interviews have appeared in Electric Literature, Paste Magazine, The Millions, and more. He runs Debutiful, a site dedicated to celebrating debut authors and their books. Follow him on Twitter to see what he's currently reading.

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