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102 MINUTES: Last Words at the Trade Center; Fighting to Live as the Towers Die - New York Times

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102 MINUTES: Last Words at the Trade Center; Fighting to Live as the Towers Die

This article was reported and written by Jim Dwyer, Eric Lipton, Kevin Flynn, James Glanz and Ford Fessenden
Published: May 26, 2002

They began as calls for help, information, guidance. They quickly turned into soundings of desperation, and anger, and love. Now they are the remembered voices of the men and women who were trapped on the high floors of the twin towers.

From their last words, a haunting chronicle of the final 102 minutes at the World Trade Center has emerged, built on scores of phone conversations and e-mail and voice messages. These accounts, along with the testimony of the handful of people who escaped, provide the first sweeping views from the floors directly hit by the airplanes and above.

Collected by reporters for The New York Times, these last words give human form to an all but invisible strand of this stark, public catastrophe: the advancing destruction across the top 19 floors of the north tower and the top 33 of the south, where loss of life was most severe on Sept. 11. Of the 2,823 believed dead in the attack on New York, at least 1,946, or 69 percent, were killed on those upper floors, an analysis by The Times has found.

Rescue workers did not get near them. Photographers could not record their faces. If they were seen at all, it was in glimpses at windows, nearly a quarter-mile up.

Yet like messages in an electronic bottle from people marooned in some distant sky, their last words narrate a world that was coming undone. A man sends an e-mail message asking, ''Any news from the outside?'' before perching on a ledge at Windows on the World. A woman reports a colleague is smacking useless sprinkler heads with his shoe. A husband calmly reminds his wife about their insurance policies, then says that the floor is groaning beneath him, and tells her that she and their children meant the world to him.

No single call can describe scenes that were unfolding at terrible velocities in many places. Taken together though, the words from the upper floors offer not only a broad and chilling view of the devastated zones, but the only window onto acts of bravery, decency and grace at a brutal time.

Eight months after the attacks, many survivors and friends and relatives of those lost are pooling their recollections, tapes and phone records, and 157 have shared accounts of their contacts for this article. At least 353 of those lost were able to reach people outside the towers. Spoken or written at the hour of death, these are intimate, lasting words. The steep emotional cost of making them public is worth paying, their families say, for a clearer picture of those final minutes.

Many also hope the history of the day is enlarged beyond memorials to the unquestioned valor of 343 firefighters and 78 other uniformed rescuers. It is time, they say, to account for the experiences of the 2,400 civilians who also died that day. Iliana McGinnis, whose husband, Tom, called her from the 92nd floor of the north tower, said, ''If they can uncover even one more piece of information about what happened during those last minutes, I want it.''

Some details remain unknowable. Working phones were scarce. The physical evidence was destroyed. Conversations were held under grave stress, and are recalled through grief, time and longing. Even so, as one fragile bit of information elaborates on the next, they illuminate conditions on the top floors.

The evidence strongly suggests that 1,100 or more people in or above the impact zones survived the initial crashes, roughly 300 in the south tower and 800 in the north. Many of those lived until their building collapsed.

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