Joe Calderone, Author of Don’t Look Back, Looks Back on 9/11

Twenty-one years ago, the U.S. was under attack. Many have moved on, but for others, memories are long and those who died are still mourned. We caught up with Joe Calderone, whose new novel, Don’t Look Back, focuses on 9/11. (Read the review of the book.)

On 9/11 you were an investigations editor for the New York Daily News. Can you take us through what you did that day? How did you handle assigning reporters to cover what was happening?

It was all hands on deck. I was more of a working editor, so I made my way into the newsroom and then walked down to Ground Zero from 14th Street the next morning and was there, reporting, near the pile. As you recall, the city was on lock down. Walking through the devastation was an other worldly experience. And all the emergency rooms across town were on high alert, waiting for the wounded who never came. 

When did you realize the enormity of the event?

It was primary day and many of us at the paper who also covered politics planned to come in late because we normally would be at the hotels covering the winners and losers of the election. My wife told me a plane had crashed into the North Tower. It was pretty clear quickly we were under attack. Then the second plane hit. I had been doing some stories about the FDNY at the time and when my sources told me that the FDNY had lost more than 300 guys, the magnitude of that number hit home. I always felt the story of what happened to the firefighters and their families struggle to find out what really happened had not been fully told. That’s why I wrote Dont Look Back.

What was it like to be at Ground Zero?

With 25 years as a reporter, you see a lot. But I had never seen anything like the attack on the World Trade Center. It was a war zone. One of the most inspiring moments was the day after the attack. The building trades guys – laborers, crane operators, welders, carpenters, truck drivers – they just showed up with their tools to help with the search and rescue, along with the FDNY and NYPD. There were thousands of guys and volunteers, just trying to help. New Yorkers, as usual, rose to the occasion, despite the danger and the heartache that the entire city was experiencing. 

Joe Calderone (Photo by Ana J. Calderone)

Over the next few days, what was your workday like? Were you chasing stories around the clock?

There were so many aspects to the story it was chaotic at first. But, working for the Daily News, we knew we had to concentrate on the local aspects of the story. I zeroed in on the FDNY. I started hearing pretty early on that the firedfighters had trouble communicating that day via radio and that some may not have heard the mayday order to evacuate the towers. And then the families of the FDNY started to emerge, calling for a real investigation. That’s where I concentrated my reporting effort and we were able to verify that the radios were a problem and publish a story about it. It took weeks to nail that down. And, at first, no one was ready to hear about problems with the city’s response. There were funerals to be covered and eulogies to be written. That was the priority and the focus at first. But eventually, people wanted answers. And the 9/11 Commission did a good job of documenting the problems with the city’s response in Chapter 9 of their report. I took that chapter as the basis for my fictional account in Dont Look Back as a way to try and bring the issues to a larger audience.

So many stories came out of 9/11. Which people stories still resonate with you?

The 9/11 and FDNY families resonated. They did not give up. They wanted to know what happened to their loved ones. And then, when some first responders who helped at Ground Zero started getting sick from cancer and other diseases, they emergeed again as a powerful political force.

Downtown Manhattan has been rebuilt and now the 9/11 Tribute Museum is shutting down and will transition online. Are we in danger of forgetting what happened on 9/11 and those who fought and died?

I don’t think so. 9/11 is one of those events – like World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor – that holds a distinct place in American history. I think it will be revisited many times. With the 21st anniversary, we can now look back with a clearer lens and reexamine some of what haplpened, like the issues with the FDNY and the 343 firefighters who perished. It is important to keep writing about it and I am talking to some filmmakers who are interested in making Don’t Look Back into a movie or Netflix series. There are young adults now who have no personal memory of 9/11. So books and movies like Dont Look Back about different aspects of 9/11 are a chance to pass some of that history along.

What reaction has your book received?

When you write a historical novel or any book, and work on it for 10 years as I did on Dont Look Back, you are really writing in a vacuum. You have no idea how the book will be received. It’s a lonely process. But I felt the story of the firefighters and their families’ struggles was an important aspect of 9/11 that needed to be re-examined and more fully told. So far, the reaction has been positive. People magazine selected the book as ‘best new in paperback.’ Dan’s Papers called it “a compelling story” and a “riveting read.” Bill Cunningham, Mayor Bloomberg’s communications director at City Hall right after 9/11, reviewed the book for City & State and called it “a readable tale” that “serve(s) a larger truth…(and) performs a service to the city and its emergency responders, particularly the FDNY.” Cunningham has been around government for 40 years. He knows a thing or two about City Hall, first responders, the FDNY and storytelling, so his review is meaningful. Also, the son of an FDNY firefighter reached out to me after reading the book and said it really moved him and captured what happened. That is gratifying. 

In 2001, terrorism was the largest threat our country faced. Now we worry about the dangers created by homegrown terrorists. Might we see another Juan Gomez mystery focused on those threats?

I certainly think we will see Juan Gomez again, moving around the city, trying to bring other issues to light. He is a character who I think has legs!

During 9/11 Mayor Rudy Giuliani was hailed as “America’s Mayor,” but now, because of his affiliation with former President Trump, he’s no longer accorded that respect. You covered City Hall. Any thoughts about doing a book, perhaps a mystery, that centers on a mayor?

Andrew Kirtzman, a great reporter, just came out with a new non-fiction book on the rise and fall of Rudy. And there are a number of documentaries in the works on him, so I think that ground is covered in the non-fiction category. But you never know where a fictional story about City Hall might take you…City Hall is the center of city government and over the years, it has been populated by many, many interesting characters. I draw on some of them in Don’t Look Back. Every mayor has a public life and a private life and sometimes they intersect in ways that the mayor does not anticipate or want. That could be the basis for a new mystery but I don’t want to give away too many details yet!

Top Bigstock Photo: Memorial at World Trade Center Ground Zero. The memorial was dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.