DATE March 20, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Srdja Popovic discusses how Otpor, a resistance group,
helped overthrow Slobodan Milosevic
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic stands trial in The Hague for
crimes against humanity, a new PBS documentary tells the story of the
non-violent movement that helped overthrow him. "Bringing Down a Dictator"
will premiere on many PBS stations March 31st. It focuses on the group Otpor,
which means `resistance' in Serbian. It was formed by a small group of
college students in 1998. My guest Srdja Popovic was a founding member. He
was one of the group's strategists and he wrote the group's training manuals.
After the overthrow of Milosevic, Popovic was elected to the Parliament. He
also serves now as environmental affairs adviser to the Serbian prime
Otpor was a non-violent movement of young people. It used rock music to help
draw people out. Instead of force, Otpor often used street theater and humor
to ridicule Milosevic and strip away some of his power by making him look
foolish. For instance, during an eclipse, Otpor took to the streets with a
long telescope its members had constructed. When you looked through it, you
saw that Milosevic was the butt of the joke.
Mr. SRDJA POPOVIC (Founding Member, Otpor): We organized a small action
inviting the newspapers and photographers and cameras and people in Belgrade,
so we made a four-meters-long telescope on which end there was a kind of made
comet. The head of comet was, of course, the head of Slobodan Milosevic, and
tail was melting. So one was looking through that telescope the day of the
eclipse--well, of course everybody was speaking of the eclipse, you know, how
it was--could see Slobodan Milosevic falling. And that was the very
(unintelligible) message. And the papers were full of pictures of that
telescope for days. And it was cheap, it was very, very simple to organize,
and it was a very, very strong message because, you know, in Serbia, as well
as anywhere in the world, you have that superstitious. So if you're speaking
on the eclipse and there is a sign, and we wanted our action to be a sign, a
lot of very primitive people generally supporting Milosevic will start
thinking, `Mm, there must be some kind of, you know, craftmanship inside
that.' And that was very good message.
Another one was on Milosevic's birthday. Otpor prepared a cake. It consisted
of parts of Serbia and Yugoslavia which Milosevic has lost in wars. So it was
the whole ex-Yugoslavia on the cake, but you have the one slice for Slovenia,
another slice for Croatia, a third slice for, I don't know, Bosnia-Herzegovina
and a last slice for Kosovo. And there was a very small part of the cake
still intact in the middle on which it was written Dedina, which is the part
of Belgrade, the richest part of town, where Milosevic's family lived. It was
on cover page of all papers and, you know, it was like you were joking with a
guy who is so dangerous, who is the Balkan butcher number one(ph).
And that gave people hope that there are kids in this country who can joke
Milosevic. To lead and to joke with you, you will have all cover pages and
whole nation will laugh to you. To arrest them, which means that you're
giving them the credits to being very big threat to your regime. And it is
the policy of non-violent struggle to put your enemies in no-winning scenario.
GROSS: It seems that Otpor was primarily a movement of younger people. I
know you tried to get everybody in it, but I think--correct me if I'm
wrong--that most of the people were probably in their teens and their 20s,
maybe their early 30s?
Mr. POPOVIC: General average age of the movement was 21.
GROSS: Yeah. So I know, like in the United States, for instance, in the '60s
and '70s when there was a big youth-oriented anti-war movement, that there was
often generational differences. The parents were angry with the children for
protesting. Families were kind of breaking apart over political differences.
Was anything similar happening in Serbia when so many of the young people were
going into the streets and protesting Milosevic?
Mr. POPOVIC: Well, the parents were the very important target group of Otpor
because those kids were, you know, just shaming their parents for sitting and
doing nothing. And this is the very strong message to the parents, because
even those who were supporting Milosevic were first parents and then Milosevic
GROSS: So even parents who supported Milosevic, you think, eventually were so
worried about their children and how Milosevic was targeting them that they
turned against Milosevic?
Mr. POPOVIC: Nobody likes to see the children or the friends of his children
GROSS: So every time Milosevic arrested a student, you think two more parents
started to hate Milosevic?
Mr. POPOVIC: Two more students and three more parents.
GROSS: Right. Now you wrote a lot of the tactics for the group and you wrote
some of the training literature. Were there other young people's movements,
student movements that inspired you and things that you took as kind of
Mr. POPOVIC: Not long time ago I was watching that "Force More Powerful"
movie and saw how the Afro-American activists are preparing each other to be
arrested. And it was almost the same thing we were doing with our kids,
almost the same thing. Two different continents, two different struggles, but
completely same model. And you know what is interesting about that?
Mr. POPOVIC: They were both successful.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did Tiananmen Square scare you? Because here you have this,
like, student movement that for the first few days it looks great. I mean,
it's peaceful, young people are out there, they're protesting. But it's
almost like a carnival. It's a happy occasion. And then the police move in
and students are butchered. And that unleashes a terrible crackdown that
lasts for years. Were you afraid of a reaction like that?
Mr. POPOVIC: No. Tiananmen Square is a great example of very big trap
usually coming to the successful movements. The first lesson is that you must
have the winning record. Your complete strategy must rely on a policy of
small victories. You know, it is one step and then proclaim the victory, and
then another step, because success borns success, and people will follow
The great experience and tragedy on Tiananmen Square was that students had
some demands in China, and they were close to win those demands. And the
government was ready to step back and to accept their demands, but then their
leaders were, you know, drunk of their success and they were like, `We will
stay for a little bit longer and ask for a little bit more.' And then the
military forces from Manchuria were brought and they were smashed to hell.
And it's still non-democracy in China. This is the very important lesson for
all non-violent movements, and the sentence: You must know when and how to
proclaim the victory.
GROSS: Give me an example of a victory that you proclaimed, you said, `Hey,
we won this one,' and then you move on to the next event.
Mr. POPOVIC: Absolutely. We did a very big event at January the 13th, which
is the Orthodox New Year, and we invited maybe 20, 30,000 people in Republic
Square in Belgrade for a New Year's celebration. And that was probably the
most risky action because it is the habit in Serbia to wait for that important
date on the street. And those people came, they were searching for fun and,
of course, at midnight there was, you know, a concert announced to start.
But we put the drummers, because the Otpor relied a lot on the rock music, on
the stage. We were drumming for maybe 15 minutes so people can feel the New
Year is coming, and then we break the thing. And through the very big screen
we were absolutely--you know, people were absolutely shocked and frozen--shown
the dozens of faces of those people who were killed in Milosevic's war. And
then we had broken the celebration and say, `OK, this was it. This is the
year with capital T. This year the life must finally win in Serbia. So go
home now, no reason to celebrate anything right now, and let's see each other
next year on the same place so we can have the reason to celebrate things.'
And do you know what is interesting? It happened. It was January the 13th of
the year 2000, the year in which life finally won in Serbia. And one year
after that, it was a very big celebration in the Republic Square. But that
was typical risky action in which we break the celebration, send the people
home, make the national story on which message was very clear. `No reason to
celebrate anything' was one message and `He will be done in a year,' meaning
Milosevic, on another. That was typical action. OK. In Serbian history,
there is no politician who will send 30,000 people home. In each country,
probably in the United States of the America, every politician will try to
speak to them for hours, while they are listening. We are probably the first
who are sending people home as a very strong message.
GROSS: OK. So that new year celebration, your message was, `This is the
year. It's his last year,' and, in fact, it was his last year. In 2000, he
lost the election on September 24th to Kostunica, but Milosevic refused to
leave office. And in response, hundreds of thousands of Serbs converged on
Belgrade and eventually occupied the Federal Parliament building until he
conceded. Let's go back to the beginning of that. Let's go back to September
24th, when Milosevic refused to concede the election, even though it was clear
that he lost. What did the leadership of Otpor decide to do?
Mr. POPOVIC: Actually, it was all a part of the plan. The key campaign in
removing Milosevic wasn't the positive campaign for the Kostunica or the very
important get-out-the vote campaign, which brought all younger people who are
usually voting abstinence to the ballot boxes. The key campaign was Otpor
negative campaign named Gotov je, which actually means `he's finished,'
thinking on Milosevic. Practically at the beginning of August, when the
elections were called, we were preparing people for a big psychological
victory. Each dictator is finished once the majority of the people know it's
finished. So losing the elections was just the good proof to the people that
Milosevic has the minority in the country, and it was really difficult to
persuade them that he will still survive. So his last desperate moves were
just a part of the scenario we prepared. Everything we should do was wait for
him to proclaim the elections non-valid and then to proclaim the general
strike. And all the people responded to that call.
GROSS: So you proclaimed a general strike and everybody responded. What
Mr. POPOVIC: Actually, everybody proclaimed the general strike...
Mr. POPOVIC: ...syndicates, party leaders, Kostunica, Otpor, school
workers--everybody proclaimed a general strike. It was just a very logical
movement. Sincerely speaking, I don't know who firstly proclaimed that. It
was the logical explanation, a logical response. We knew it will happen.
GROSS: And where were you during those days of the general strike?
Mr. POPOVIC: Training people for--well, let's explain it this way. The Otpor
deal with the opposition leaders was that there must be the day in which
people from all Serbia will come to Belgrade, and Otpor's job was to--rising
up the universities in Belgrade, keep students on streets for at least seven
or eight hours a day. It was terrible. It was like between 20- and
30-kilometer marches around Belgrade and around Belgrade and around Belgrade
and through central Belgrade and blocking the roads, so that Belgrade is, you
know, energized enough to accept that energy coming from the other cities on
October the 5th. So actually, I was dealing with the organization of those
five or six days of very strong student protests in Belgrade.
GROSS: My guest is Srdja Popovic, a co-founder of the Serbian resistance
group Otpor, which helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Srdja Popovic, one of the founders of the Serbian
resistance group Otpor, which is profiled in an upcoming PBS documentary
called "Bringing Down a Dictator."
Would you describe what it was like in the streets on those days of the
general strike, and the days between the time that Milosevic refused to
concede the election and the time that he actually was thrown out of office?
Mr. POPOVIC: It was like a small miracle, you know. All Belgrade stopped,
and public transportation was parked all around the streets and people were
parking cars wherever they are because the general aim was to block the
traffic. And traffic was smashed. And you could walk. I was walking with my
girlfriend, taking her for a hand. And, for example, if I would like to block
the street, just pushing the container in the street, there would be 15 people
helping me from thin air, and that was like, you know--you could feel in the
atmosphere that nothing is the same and that nothing will come back to normal
before Milosevic leave.
And that was very strong message to him, that was very strong message to the
police also, because we developed the complete tactics towards the police,
trying to avoid the physical conflict with them and telling them that there
are absolutely no difference between the victims in the blue jeans, which were
Otpor guys, and victims in the blue uniforms, which were the police guys, and
that we are all the victims in the system. And in one moment, when people
from the police recognized that it is not anymore opposition in Otpor against
Milosevic, against the regime, but it was the people against Milosevic, they
didn't want to be losers together with Milosevic. And, of course, they could
avoid shooting in the crowd because some of their own children were there.
GROSS: Could you feel--was there, like, a moment when things shifted, when
you realized that the police were going to be on your side, and instead of
shooting at you, they'd be supporting you?
Mr. POPOVIC: Actually, it was very clear at the very beginning of October the
5th, because during the day columns were coming--columns of vehicles all
through Serbia, and it was very small resistance of the police. They built up
the barricades all around Belgrade. They had strict orders to stop those
people going to Belgrade, which was practically ridiculous because there is no
police force which can stop the column 40 kilometers long. And actually, as
day was coming, it was practically very clear that police will build the
barricades, but not defend them. And what happened in front of the Federal
Parliament--because, of course, we were all surveilling the police as well as
they were surveilling us--is that the people in the Federal Parliament and the
building of national television were given strict orders to shoot through the
crowd, but it never happens. They never shoot through the crowd.
GROSS: At what point did you know, `This is it. It's over. We've won'?
Mr. POPOVIC: Well, I know far before October the 5th, but generally, October
the 5th at 5 PM when a special police squad surrendered to the people, running
around with Otpor and Serbian flags through the city, it was pretty obvious.
GROSS: And what did you do then?
Mr. POPOVIC: Oh, me, myself, I misused my position of leader of the march and
took the car in which there was a strong loudspeaker, put the petrol inside
the aggregate, which was moving the loud speaker, and start the long march
from Otpor's office in Knez Mihailova over to Slavija Square in Belgrade,
producing impossible techno noise, which attracted between 20 and 30,000
people to one of the biggest parties I've ever been.
GROSS: And what was the first day like after Milosevic stepped down? How
Mr. POPOVIC: Sunny, nice, with all the people camping around Belgrade. It
was the tremendous experience for me because all of my life changed that day.
The sun was rising. The Federal Parliament was black and smoked. And there
were very much--very big crowd of very happy people around still with flags,
still on streets, because we had strict orders to stay on streets two or three
days after October the 5th because of the possibility of, you know, parts of
the army react or whatever, and we should protect that with our own bodies.
And the day I gave the promise to myself that this part of my life is over and
that maybe I will do some politics or something else for the rest of my life,
but it will never influence and play with my life as it was before October the
5th, and I still stick to that promise.
GROSS: Well, in fact, you are in politics now. You ran for the Parliament in
Serbia. You won. You're in Parliament. You're an environmental activist
within Parliament. In a way, I...
Mr. POPOVIC: Yes. But it is not influencing my life anymore.
Mr. POPOVIC: I finally had some time, you know, for friends, for my girl...
Mr. POPOVIC: ...for my parents...
Mr. POPOVIC: ...for fishing, for all those things that were the sacrifice to
the revolution in two years of Otpor and even before during the Democratic
GROSS: Having seen what politics was like and how corrupt it was under
Milosevic, I would have thought you might have like hated politics so much you
wouldn't have wanted to enter it. Why did you want to run for office?
Mr. POPOVIC: Actually I was the highly ranked functioner of Democratic Party
even before Otpor. In 1996 I was elected as the youngest member of Belgrade
City Parliament, and politics was my decision from 1993. One of my promises
and promises of my friends in Otpor was that it is not only the changing the
regime we are wanting, but the changing of system. And system is so
old-fashioned, so bureaucracy, so corrupted that there are a lot of years
invested in its reconstruction. And each of us decided to change it in our
way. My old friends, who are still running for Otpor campaigns, they decided
to change the system from the outside. And some of us, like Ivo Andric and me
and others who are in the Parliament, we decided to change it from the inside.
And actually I'm just continuing my mission.
GROSS: Have you been watching the Milosevic war crimes trial?
Mr. POPOVIC: Rarely. I get enough of Milosevic.
GROSS: Why aren't you watching it more? You fought so hard to get rid of
him. Here he is on trial now in The Hague. Why aren't you watching it?
Mr. POPOVIC: Unfortunately, I consider Hague very expensive circus, which is
giving Milosevic credit to once again get back to the political scene and
prove the fact that he was basing his tragical national policy on, that there
is an international community against Serbs. They're even denying the
existence of Kosovo Liberation Army, so watched from the angle of people in
Serbia, Milosevic is getting credits for that accusation. And I'm very, very
sad that this happening and that may strengthen the retrograde powers in our
GROSS: Have you been in the position yet where there have been any protests
against the way you've used your power in Parliament?
Mr. POPOVIC: Actually, yes. And there is a big difference because we are
communicating with our political opponents and people who do not agree with
our policy, and this is absolutely new tradition in Serbia. Now we have Otpor
and NGO groups monitoring the Parliament. Actually, the president of the
Parliament invited all those who would like to be there. And it is the
beginning of good democratic change in my country, in which, of course,
civilian control over state organization is the basic cornerstone for
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. POPOVIC: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Srdja Popovic is one of the people featured in the PBS documentary
"Bringing Down a Dictator," which premieres on many PBS stations March 31st.
He's now a member of the Serbian Parliament.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dennis Smith talks about September 11th, firefighters
and his book "Report for Ground Zero"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Dennis Smith, is a retired New York City firefighter who's now an
honorary assistant chief of department. He's also the author of the
best-seller, "Report from Engine Company 82." On September 11th, after the
second tower of the World Trade Center was attacked, he walked to his
neighborhood firehouse in Manhattan and went with the firefighters to ground
zero. He arrived just after the second tower collapsed. He kept returning to
ground zero to work in the bucket brigade that was clearing the debris,
searching for human remains.
Now Smith has a new book called "Report from Ground Zero" that includes
interviews with many police and firefighters who were in or nearby the towers
at the time of their collapse. I asked him what he was able to do when he
arrived, after both towers had collapsed.
Mr. DENNIS SMITH (Author, "Report from Ground Zero"): Well, there wasn't
really much to do. There was people walking over the piles, yelling out names
and that kind of thing, trying to find any survivors. You know, it's in the
experience of the fire department that in a major collapse like this that you
will find survivors because the way buildings collapse, generally speaking,
there are a great many voids that are left in the building. You know, for
instance, when a wall gets cantilevered over, and there is--big spaces where
human beings or fall and get trapped or whatever, but they would still be
alive, and this is common in earthquakes, for instance.
But here, you know, there were 12, 13, 14--I'm just counting now--15, 16
survivors that survived the collapse itself, and there were 14 in the north
tower and two in the south tower. And when I got there, the one in the south
tower had been rescued, and the other one was about to be rescued, and the 12
that were trapped in the north tower were still trapped. Now hardly anyone
knew they were there, of course, and then finally when they made radio
contact--and they made radio contact in a very interesting way: Billy Butler
called his wife way upstate New York and he told her, `Well, look, stop crying
because you've got to do something. You know, call the firehouse, have
somebody in the firehouse go over to the site and tell them that we're here
and we're alive and that we're between the second and the fifth floor of the
north tower.' And of course, the second and the fifth floor, what at one time
was the second and the fifth floor was no longer that, it was just, you know,
another sort of mound in a pile of rubble.
And the firefighters finally found them about four hours later, essentially
they were taken out, and they came out of their own accord. There were a
couple who were pulled out, two men from Engine 39 who were pulled out from
the first floor, and they were pulled at a height of about 30 feet.
GROSS: Did you interview the man who had phoned his wife while he was trapped
between the second and the fifth floor?
Mr. SMITH: I did. I did. I talked to just about all of those people who
were trapped in the north tower. I talked to the people who were trapped in
the south tower. A man named Will Jimeno, whose friend, Dominick Pezzulo died
before his eyes in a course of four hours--I mean, he hung on and he hung on,
and then finally he expired--both of them were completely trapped and
immobile, and so I went to Will Jimeno, and he told me that story.
I went to the chief of department, who was Dan Nigro, and Dan Nigro took the
place of Pete Ganci, who was the chief of department who had died in the
second collapse, and Dan Nigro had driven across the Brooklyn Bridge with Pete
Ganci, and they talked--you know, Ganci was the chief of department and Nigro
was the chief of operations, and of course what they saw before them was the
most extraordinary thing. I mean, in our experience, to see one floor of fire
in a high-rise building is--you know it is quite a job. To see two floors
would be a major alarm, but here they were looking at seven, eight and 10
stories on fire in the middle of the World Trade Center. So coming across the
bridge, Dan Nigro just said to Chief Ganci, he said, `Pete, this will be the
worst day of our lives.'
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what faced the men at the top of the
command who had to decide what the strategy should be for dealing with the
towers as they burned, before they collapsed. You interviewed surviving
members of the command. Were there many men who had survived who were there
from the beginning, or was it only people who came later who you were able to
Mr. SMITH: Yes. Yeah. I talk about Joe Dunn, the first deputy police
commissioner, and Joe Dunn was just going to work. He got to the site just
after the first plane went into the north tower and when he got there and got
out of his car--he happened to be on crutches because he had snapped his
Achilles' tendon some weeks before; and he's a very big man, Joe Dunn, very
well-respected in the police department, I mean, maybe, you know, one of the
most respected police officers in America--and he got out of his car on his
crutches and just then the second plane hit the south tower, and when that
second plane hit, it literally went through the building, and so much came out
the other side, I mean, plane's engines, part of the wings, and a huge amount
of debris was thrown, showered, to the north side of the building.
And Joe Dunn ran, literally ran, to get under Building No. Five, which had a
sort of an overhang, which was just east of the north tower, and while all of
this murderous debris, you know, went all around him. So he just saved
himself there. At the very same time, part of an engine fell down into the
courtyard between the two towers, went through the courtyard and went into the
bottom corridor of the World Trade Center, the corridor that connects the two
towers beneath the ground, and there it trapped John McLoughlin, Will Jimeno
and Dominick Pezzulo of the Port Authority Police Department. Now few people
know that, actually, that that collapse in that basement occurred with the
crash of the second plane going into the south tower.
So all of these things are happening at once, and Joe Dunn then went to the
command center of the Office of Emergency Management, which was in Building
No. Seven. Now this is the building that, of course, collapsed at 5:00 in the
afternoon. And they couldn't get in there. They got into another building
where the mayor was, and the police commissioner and the fire commissioner had
gone there, and then that group of people decided they were going to go to
some other building to create a command center and then they ended up in a
firehouse up on Halston Street(ph). Joe Dunn decided that he would go back
with his men, and so he, with his crutches, went back to the fire scene, to
the scene of the collapse, and the first building had collapsed and he was
down in the street, and his, you know, staff kept saying, `Hey, boss, we got
to get out of here, you know, this building.' He said, `No, I've got to make
sure all the men are out of here,' and his car was parked down the street in
front of the north tower.
And then finally a bomb squad truck passed by, and one of Joe's staff stopped
the truck. They literally pushed him into this truck with his crutches, and
the truck began to take off, and as it took off, the second tower came down,
and had that truck not gone by at that moment, Joe probably would have said,
`OK, you're right. We've got to get out of here,' and they would have gone to
their car, which was found two weeks later in the Staten Island dump, and it
was completely incinerated and crushed, and they found Joe Dunn's
sunglasses--and I tell this story; it's just an incidental story, but it gives
an idea of the ruination there--that they found his sunglasses in the glove
compartment of his car, and he was very finicky about his sunglasses, and they
were expensive and he was concerned about them, and when they found them they
sent them back to him in the metal case, completely burnt. And the sunglass
lenses themselves had melted down in to little BBs, and that's where Joe would
have been, you know, in all probability, had that bomb squad truck not come
My guest is retired firefighter Dennis Smith, author of the new book, "Report
from Ground Zero." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dennis Smith. He spent 18
years as a firefighter in New York. He's now honorary assistant chief of the
fire department. He's also the author of the best-seller "Report from Engine
Company 82." Now he's written a new book called "Report from Ground Zero," in
which he interviewed many of the people of the fire department, from the
command on down, who were there on September 11th.
Let me ask you a kind of general question about skyscrapers--and granted,
there's never been a catastrophe in a skyscraper like there was on September
11th, but when firemen get to a skyscraper fire, what are some of the things
they have to keep in mind that make skyscraper fires different than any other
kind of fire?
Mr. SMITH: Well, the most fundamental consideration is how many floors of
stairs do you have to walk up, because you're carrying equipment, and that
always is a challenge, just walking up the stairs. So that's the first
consideration. And the other is the water supply, and you have a standpipe
system at the bottom of the building, which you feed into, and you put the
water in the standpipe system. And your fundamental consideration at any
fire, whether it's in high-rise or not, is the life issue, life safety, who is
trapped, who is above the fire, how do you get them out? Have they been
trained? Have they had fire drills? These are all the kinds of
considerations that are made.
GROSS: What about things like fear that the elevators might collapse and
plummet to the ground, or a special kind of, like, air shafts and wind tunnels
that might form?
Mr. SMITH: Well, this was a great consideration in the World Trade Center.
There were several people who were burned in the lobby of the north tower, and
they were burned because as they were walking into the lobby, a huge amount of
burning aircraft fuel came down the elevator shaft and blew out into the
lobby, and burned a group of people pretty significantly. And the elevator
shafts themselves can, in a fire, act as a flue. You're right in thinking
I guess, Terry, it'd be intelligent to explain to you the architecture of the
building, to help you understand that this building was built--if you think
of a straw and then square the straw some way and then that each floor was
attached to the sides of the inside of this straw, and through the middle of
the building itself was a shaft, and in this shaft were the elevators and the
stairwells, the three emergency stairwells. And that gave the architect a
huge amount of space to use, you know, usable or rentable or sellable space.
And that is, of course, the mission of an architect, is to try to build a
building with as much, you know, economic usable space as possible. And in a
building this size, normally you would get 50 percent of the floor space
usable, and here, with the design that Yamasaki made when he designed this
building, he got 75 percent usable space. And the 25 percent was used in the
middle of the building, with the elevators and the stairwells.
GROSS: How did that affect how the fire spread?
Mr. SMITH: It affected it greatly, because when the plane came in, it went
through this middle column of the elevators and stairwells, and so that
immediately cut off the stairwells for any kind of escape, either down or up.
I mean, these people couldn't get to the roof, either, because the fire was
coming right up the stairway shafts now. And so that was a flaw in the design
that they didn't recognize was flawed when they originally designed it, in my
And it also enabled--because there was no structural steel supporting this
anywhere except for around this middle column, it allowed those floors to
pancake so that when the first floor fell to the floor beneath it, the floor
beneath it could not sustain the weight of one falling floor with the dynamic
and, you know, the weight of the fall. And then that, of course, led to a
pyramid collapse, one after another after another.
GROSS: What are you taught about when you're training to be a fireman, about
when you go into a burning building and risk your life, and when it's just too
risky and, you know, you just don't go in, knowing that you're going to be
Mr. SMITH: Well, I think what you're taught initially is that you have to
trust the experience of the person next to you, and your lieutenant or your
captain, and if that person is bringing you into an environment that's, you
know, by definition is pretty hostile, if he's bringing you in there, your
chances of being safe are pretty good, because his experience would, you
know--or his or her experience--would have brought you there. And the reason
I make that distinction is that the captain of one of the engine companies
where several firefighters were lost is a woman, and very well-respected in
the New York Fire Department. So you have to trust your leaders, because
they're the only people who've been inside enough burning buildings to get a
sense of what will happen.
There are the academic understandings, but sometimes they don't serve you so
well. For instance, the fact that steel stretches at 1,200 degrees inherent
temperature is an academic understanding of the physics of fire, but it didn't
help anybody knowing that in the World Trade Center because of the way this
plane came in, a plane that normally travels at 350 miles to 400 miles an hour
comes in at 550 miles an hour, it is loaded with fuel, it has 24,000 gallons
of fuel, it creates a comprehensive fire load on the floor, it heats the steel
up comprehensively at every edge of the building, and when the steel buckles,
the steel all stretches sort of simultaneously and it creates this pancake
effect when it finally collapses. No one ever thought that. There's no
precedent for it. And now we know. We didn't know that before.
GROSS: The firefighters were treated as heroes by all of New York and by all
of the country as well. When you became a firefighter in the late '60s, you
weren't always treated as a hero when you showed up to fight a fire. I mean,
to the contrary, sometimes the firemen were treated as the bad guys. Where
did you work, and what was the climate like there?
Mr. SMITH: That was--I became a firefighter in 1963 and I worked in what was
then the busiest company in the city of New York, Engine Company 82, which was
in the South Bronx, and, you know, the world has changed so much since then.
This was in the `Burn, baby, burn' period of our history. There was
extraordinary racial unrest in our inner cities. I mean, the politics of the
nation was in turmoil because of the war in Vietnam and because of the advent
of the civil rights movement, and the manifestation of these things in our
inner cities was pretty horrendous.
I mean, we responded to 40 alarms a day, and we had two or three or four major
fires every single day, and people were burning up their buildings because
they felt that burning the buildings were better than living in them, and it
was a political statement as well as anything. And when we got there, very
often people would throw things at us and so on. But, you know, I don't feel
any hostility toward those people, even looking back, because it was truly a
part of the times, and firefighters suffered because of it. But it's a
dangerous job anyway, and...
GROSS: What kept you going then fighting fires when you were sometimes
showing up at fires that were intentionally set by the people who lived there
and people didn't want you to put it out? People didn't like you or respect
you, necessarily, when you showed up.
Mr. SMITH: Well, you go to these scenes as a unit, as a company, with people
that you know and respect and trust and that you've worked with, and so you
do your job in accordance with the history of how these units work with each
other and within the group. And so, you know, your obligation always is to go
into that unit, no matter how many people are outside throwing stones at you,
and the first thing you do is search for somebody who might be trapped above
the fire or in the back room, or whatever. And if that person is unconscious
or just recently expired, you know, you get on your knees and you give that
person mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, under any circumstances, and that's how
And firefighters work pretty much the same way today. They are
extraordinarily respected today in a new way, because no one ever realized
before the nature of going into a building that everyone was always running
GROSS: Well, Dennis Smith, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SMITH: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Dennis Smith is the author of "Report from Ground Zero." He's a
retired firefighter who's now an honorary assistant chief of department.
Coming up, pop music critic Ken Tucker on the new CD of "Love Songs for New
York," recorded in response to September 11th. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: CD "Wish You Were Here: Love Songs for New York"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the months after the September 11th terrorist attacks musicians have
responded with numerous benefit concerts. Some are starting to record their
reactions to the tragedy. One of them, country singer Alan Jackson, has a hit
with his composition "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." Other
reactions are captured on a new anthology assembled by the staff of The
Village Voice on a CD called "Wish You Were Here: Love Songs for New York."
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review. This is Ari Up, former member of the
punk band the Slits.
(Soundbite of song)
Chorus #1: Pick up New York. Don't say nothing bad about New York.
Chorus #2: Oh, no.
Chorus #1: Don't say nothing bad about my city.
Chorus #2: About it so...
Chorus #1: Don't say nothing bad about New York.
Chorus #2: Don't you know...
Chorus #1: Don't say nothing bad about my city.
Chorus #2: It's good.
Chorus #1: It's good.
Chorus #2: It's good to me.
Chorus #1: Good to me.
Chorus #2: It's all I care about. Mm, mm.
Chorus #1: Don't say nothing...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Ari Up's reworked version of The Cookies' 1963 hit "Don't Say Nothing Bad
(About My Baby)" is typical of the extremely varied music on "Wish You Were
Here: Love Songs for New York." It's full if impassioned, defiant,
heartbreaking songs from a wide variety of artists, from aging folkie Loudon
Wainwright III to this song. It's called "I Love New York City" by Andrew WK,
a hot, new up-and-comer you're going to hear a lot about in the coming months.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. ANDREW WK: (Singing) I love New York City. Oh, yeah, New York City. I
love New York City. Oh, yeah, New York City.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WK: Running over...
TUCKER: I don't think you're necessarily going to hear Andrew WK on your
favorite radio station anytime soon, but another singer and song that's
inescapable right now is Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World
Stopped Turning)," a country hit that has propelled its album to the top of
the pop charts.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. ALAN JACKSON: (Singing) Where were you when the world stopped turning on
that September day? Were you in the yard with your wife and children or
working on some stage in LA? Did you stand there in shock at the sight of
that black smoke rising against that blue sky? Did you shout out in anger and
fear for your neighbor or did you just sit down and cry? Did you weep for the
TUCKER: The rebelliousness and anger that characterizes rock 'n' roll is of
lesser importance in country music, which prizes home and comfort as its
ultimate solace. Which is to say that "Where Were You," written by Jackson
about the multitude of reactions prompted by the events of September 11th,
wouldn't cut it as rock music, in whose context a line like `Did you weep for
the children who lost their dear loved ones?' might come off as mawkish. But
when placed in a country music setting, it seems heartfelt, verging on
eloquence. So people think a tune like "Where Were You," due in part to the
very fact that it's a huge commercial success, exploits September 11th grief,
And I have to confess my own reservations about a line like `I watched CNN but
I'm not sure I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran,' my gut
reaction is, `Well, heck, Alan, turn off the TV and read a history book on
that tour bus once in a while, because distinctions like that have now become
pretty dang essential.' But when I hear "Where Were You," it strikes me above
all as an honest reaction, a direct communication between singer and audience,
something that's rare in any kind of popular music. Everyone has his or her
own reaction to September 11th. A wide variety, a tumultuous welter of voices
in fact, deserves to be heard.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. "Wish You
Were Here: Love Songs for New York" is on Village Voice Records.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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