Exclusive Excerpts from 'Report from Ground Zero'

  Also: Dennis Smith Pens 'Report from Ground Zero' Prologue September 11, 2001, 8:48 a.m. For decades to come people will ask of each other, where were you . . . ?

How many? It is a natural reaction to contemplate the numbers. But I know that I must think only of the individuals affected. Even one person is too many to be in the presence of such mortal danger, yet I know that fundamental to this terrible incident will be the numbers.

The heat must be extraordinary, generated by airplanes with fuel-filled wings. I remember a question on the lieutenant's test of many years ago: What is the expansion factor of a one-hundred-foot steel beam as it reaches the inherent heat level of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit? The answer is nine and a half inches, and I try to gauge how hot this fire before me is burning. Is it intense enough to bring the steel to 1200 degrees? The smoke is first very black, indicating the burning fuel, and then white as it rises, indicating great heat. It is not a good sign. If the steel stretches, the floor will collapse, and that will only make the rescue effort more difficult.

We are at the beginning of a war, I think as I begin to change my clothes. No one could send two planes into our largest buildings without a grander plan, and I fear there will be more to follow this disaster.

I find an old Engine Co. 82 T-shirt, an FDNY sweatshirt, jeans, and heavy black hiking shoes. This is just about the same kind of uniform I wore when I used to work on Engine 82 in the days before bunker gear, neck protectors, sixty-minute air tanks, and personal alert devices. I make certain to bring my badge with the department's picture identification card, certain there will be tight security everywhere I go today.

At 9:45 a third plane goes into the Pentagon, and I begin to make my way to a firehouse.

The notion of an enemy's attacking us in the innocence of our early morning is repellent. The Pentagon-the very heart of our military strength. How could they have stolen these planes? The question vibrates within me. How could they have gotten onto our planes with guns or weapons? Why didn't someone notice what they were doing, or suspect them? But it is not like us, we Americans, to be suspicious. It is our optimism that prevents us from attributing evil intentions to others; it is our need to protect the rights of everyone that leads us to think the best of people. And that is our strength, actually; this basic freedom to walk around freely without suspicion makes America what it is. But it is that very attitude that also leaves us so vulnerable. One might argue that the price we pay to protect our freedoms is to be tolerant of strangers. All any American needs to do is to look around his community to recognize that we are indeed a nation of strangers. Our cultural diversity is so great that even our good friends and professional colleagues have cultural traits and assumptions that we do not share, or even understand. That is the way it should be in an open society. But how do I explain to myself, and to my children, that our freedoms have led to this horrible event?

It angers me; I want to know whom to blame. I am certain, deep in my heart, that this attack is connected to the first attempt on the World Trade Center back in 1993. Ramzi Yousef, who planned that bombing, and his cohort, the blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, are today in federal prison. The sheikh has been in Springfield, Missouri, since 1995, serving several life sentences. Yousef was sentenced to 240 years in a maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado. I remember how defiant and remorseless they were, and that memory only serves to anger me even more.

I can shake that feeling only by picturing the firefighters climbing up those stairs in the highest buildings in New York. It is a tough climb in any circumstance, but they will have mask tanks on their backs and hose and tools in their hands, equipment that will make them about sixty pounds heavier. It takes a person with exceptional commitment to do this, and I know it will not be easy for them. I am thinking about this as I go down the elevator in my building. How easy it is for some of us, and how difficult for others. On Lexington Avenue the streets are packed with people. The trains have stopped, the buses are not stopping at the bus stops. I must find some way to get down to the World Trade Center.