For New Yorkers who were in the city on that beautiful fall day, September 11, 2001, the events that transpired are seared into their memories. After two planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the Twin Towers, both buildings collapsed to the ground, resulting in nearly 3,000 deaths and turning lower Manhattan into a war zone. Among the dead were 343 New York City firefighters who were hailed as heroes after they charged into the structures and rescued many people. The 9/11 Commission held hearings in New York and Washington, D.C. and issued a report in July, 2004, that raised questions about faulty communications during the tragedy which may have contributed to the firefighters’ deaths.
Although Joe Calderone’s novel, Don’t Look Back, is fiction, it’s based on a chilling reality – that because of a lack of coordination among responding agencies, many firefighters did not hear the order to evacuate. At the time of the attack, Calderone was serving as investigations editor for the New York Daily News and helped document how communications snafus on 9/11 led to unnecessary deaths among the FDNY rank and file. Calderone’s more than 25 years as a journalist – he was part of a team at Newsday that won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting – adds texture and substance to Don’t Look Back. His experience covering New York’s City Hall exposes how political interests oftentimes lead to coverups, even when the truth may spark change and save lives in the future.
Joe Calderone (Photo by Ana J. Calderone)
In Don’t Look Back, Juan Gomez is an investigative reporter for the News of New York. One of the first reporters on the scene, it doesn’t take Juan long to suspect that something went very wrong during the 9/11 rescue attempts. Juan is no stranger to covering the FDNY and he encounters one of his frequent sources, Mike Maldonado, the department’s first lieutenant fire marshal. Like Juan, Mike is a regular at Elaine’s a well known Upper East Side restaurant where the city’s politicians, writers, and artists come together and share opinions and sometimes tips that turn into headlines. On this occasion, Mike is cautious about what he tells Juan, but what he does say – that more than 300 firefighters may have died – whets Juan’s appetite for more.
Since Mike gave him access to the command center occupying a tent on the outskirts of what was soon to be known as “The Pile,” Juan approaches Mary Sullivan, chief of staff to Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Juan asks for a few minutes with the mayor, but treads lightly, aware that Mary’s husband is a top officer in the FDNY’s elite rescue unit. When he inquires about her husband’s status, Mary bursts into tears. He’s missing and soon will be declared dead. With Mary’s proximity to the powers that be at City Hall, Juan knows that she could be a valuable source if she is willing to risk her job.
Another woman is soon on Juan’s radar – Sarah Murphy, whose son, Peter, an FDNY newbie, was apparently in the North Tower when it collapsed. Since the South Tower collapsed first, Juan suspects that if Peter and his colleagues had been warned, they might have made it out alive. Sarah is grieving her son’s death, but also dealing with a guilty conscience. Feeling that her son’s life needed more focus, that is, a steady job with a future, she encouraged him to join the FDNY. Service to the city runs in the Murphy family, with Peter’s father recently retired from the NYPD. But Sarah’s loyalty to the city soon sours when she feels the mayor and other public officials are eager to turn up at the funerals for photo ops, but less willing to answer questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of so many firefighters. (Giuliani’s reputation has hit the skids since his visibility during 9/11 earned him the moniker “America’s mayor,” and Calderone mentions the former mayor but wisely keeps him in deep background.)
To get the story, Juan must battle on many fronts. There’s his constant reaching out to sources. He and Mary hold clandestine meetings in Queens where they are less likely to be seen by anyone at City Hall. Since Juan’s wife, Linda, died from cancer a year ago, he’s been trying to balance the demands of his reporting job with his responsibilities as a single father to three children. Chasing what could be a bombshell expose keeps him away from home and suffering angry phone calls from his teenage daughter, Jennifer. Then there are the politics in the newsroom ever since the paper was purchased by a city real estate developer whose business depends on maintaining a good relationship with City Hall. When Juan turns up evidence that the wagons may be circling to protect interests that resulted in those malfunctioning radios being used by the FDNY, the newspaper’s higher ups are determined to keep his story under wraps. Juan, along with those helping him, put everything on the line – their jobs and maybe their lives – for a headline that will shake the city.
In 2001, New Yorkers still got their news from actual newspapers that rolled off the presses and were dropped at newsstands. Calderone’s novel brings that piece of journalistic history alive and serves as yet another reminder that a free and aggressive press is essential to our democracy.
In a few weeks we will mark another anniversary for the 9/11 attack. While many have moved on and lower Manhattan is enjoying a revival, Calderone’s novel is a needed reminder that there are still questions about how the rescue was handled. Until those questions are answered, we risk making the same mistakes again.
Don’t Look Back
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