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Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite
Artie Van Why's 9/11: A Survivor's Story is a nonfiction memoir. Van Why was there, at Ground Zero, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He had originally moved to New York City in pursuit of a career as an actor, and had become a nighttime word processor for a midtown law firm. When that firm merged with another, he was offered a daytime job at the firm’s downtown offices just outside the World Trade Center plaza. That plaza quickly became a part of his daily life and ritual -- sipping coffee before working, enjoying the seasonal changes during lunchtime, being a part of the community of workers and tourists who made that plaza and those buildings their own. His first inkling of catastrophe was the sudden boom and shaking of the building where he worked. Then, he and his coworkers stared aghast out their offices’ large picture windows at the unthinkable. Van Why ran out to the plaza and found his parents’ biblical version of hell to have taken the place of his beloved plaza, which was so full of life just a few moments before. Oddest of all was finding himself ankle-deep in paper as he left his building. Millions of sheets of white paper giving the streets a surreal glow. But his attention shifted inexorably to the flames above and the screaming. What could he do? How could he help? Van Why tried to figure a way to get to the tower and render some sort of assistance, but the air above the plaza was raining debris, shards of metal, glass falling like monstrous hail. His life would be forever changed by his experiences that morning. This is his story.
I knew when I saw Artie Van Why’s memoir that I had to read it. I also knew it would be a grueling experience, and it was. Van Why’s empathy for those doomed jumpers, who chose flight over the horrors of the flames, is enduring, and I could see that he carries them with him to this day. His descriptions of that morning were especially moving for me for my own personal reasons. I had worked in that area for over a dozen years and had only just left a few years before 9/11; my building was just a block away from Van Why’s. The sense of loss I felt on hearing the reports as they happened was profound, but I never really felt it as deeply and vividly as when I read Van Why’s account. I could see that plaza and visualize the moving stairs going down to the commuter trains I took each day, and wondered, once again, if I would have made it to work that day before the planes crashed. Like Van Why, I mourned the loss of that bookstore and wondered about the man who sold flowers in the tunnels. Yes, we are all survivors of 9/11. Our lives were inexorably changed, our wounds still seethe unhealed beneath the surface. Van Why’s story is a profoundly moving one; his words and the blogs which follow his memoir helped me to begin to more fully process the loss of that morning and the impact it’s had on all our lives. I could not recommend a book more highly than I am recommending 9/11: A Survivor's Story.