A Look Back At 9/11 In 'I Heard The Sirens Scream'

In a new book, "I Heard the Sirens Scream" Pulitzer Prize winner Laurie Garrett gives her account of the World Trade Center attacks ten years ago, and tells how she thinks those events, combined with the anthrax attacks that came shortly after, changed the country's course.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Next month, we'll mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. Who doesn't remember what they were doing when we learned about the towers and the Pentagon being hit and that plane that went down in Pennsylvania? Where were you? What were you doing? People still asking each other. We all have a story about that day.

But perhaps very few of us can tell our story as eloquently as my next guest. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Laurie Garrett started taking notes as soon as she learned of the attacks, and she's gathered her personal emails and observations, along with her reporting, into a new book "I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks." She's here in our studio with me. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Laurie.

LAURIE GARRETT: It's great to be here.

FLATOW: Let me just give out our number, 1-800-989-8255, if you'd like to talk to Laurie Garrett, and you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. How long have we known each other, 30, 35 years?

GARRETT: Oh since before Three Mile Island.

FLATOW: OK, let's go 35, 40 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GARRETT: Hey, let's get out the walkers.

FLATOW: But my point being in all - and you've written - you've won every award. You've written so many books, but I don't think I've read a book in which you are as angry and frustrated as you are in this book.

GARRETT: I'm indignant. I'm so glad you picked that up.

FLATOW: Oh, it's - but you're not out of control. I mean, it's controlled anger, why? What is going on here?

GARRETT: Well, there are so many ways in which the 9/11 attacks, how we responded, what happened thereafter and then how the nation handled anthrax that are deeply anger-making, especially if you're a New Yorker, and you feel that we became the reason to beat the drumbeats of war, that the attacks on our city were used by people who don't live here to decide that we needed to invade Iraq, that the attacks on our city have been used by any number of politicians, misused, abused, with rewritten narrative, you know, the great lies told to justify all sorts of political things, everything from decreasing our civil liberties to building up a massive bioterrorism apparatus in this country, distorting our whole public health mission.

And I think the other thing is that as we approach the 10th anniversary, I should warn your listeners you're going to be deluged with pathos. And the take, the sort of reinvented, decade-later, you know, narrative is oh, wasn't it tragic, oh wasn't it sad.

Well, that's true, but there was a lot more going on than tragedy and sadness. It would be like looking at the assassination of John F. Kennedy and seeing it solely from the point of view of little John-John standing there and the tears that you shed when you see the little boy who watches his father's casket go by.

What 9/11 was about, and the anthrax that followed, is an arc that changed the history of this country in fundamental ways and changed the history of this city that we're in, in New York, in absolutely astounding ways. And it is an arc that starts from a sort of singularity moment.

You're a physicist. I know you love the notion of a singularity. It's a singularity moment, when the whole world, with pockets of exception in certain parts of the world, looked on aghast at the same time and said this is horror, this is wrong, this is terrible. How many are dead? How horrible can this be? How can people turn commercial jets into missiles and target civilians?

We had a singularity moment. You go out 120 days, that singularity has turned into the exact opposite: a moment of complete fracturing, of compete degeneration of the unity that was on one day. And...

FLATOW: And you think this was all unnecessary?

GARRETT: Absolutely unnecessary. And I think many of the ways that we responded, whether we're talking about the public health response, the political response, the law enforcement, whatever aspect you look at, many of ways we responded set the seeds for this terrible, almost civil-war-type atmosphere that we live in in this country with such partisan dispute that the word compromise is considered evil, and the word governance is on nobody's lips.

FLATOW: You try to tie in the anthrax incident with 9/11, and you say that - I'm going to read a little headline from Publica, it says: Justice Department filing casts doubt on guilt of Bruce Ivins' accused anthrax case. And you arrived at that independently in your book.

GARRETT: Yes. I know I - more than three years ago, I decided that the entire FBI investigation was not only, you know, Three Stooges writ large but that they - that they had been steered onto a targeting that was 100 percent incorrect.

So they decided that they were looking at a Ted Kaczynski-like model, the Unabomber, and for those of you that may be too young to know about the Unabomber, the key point was the idea of a very sick, solitary individual, a highly brilliant scientist, who in a very calculated and malevolent way designed, you know, a set of perfect crimes carried out against people for obviously irrational reasons.

So the model became oh, we have somebody like the Ted Kaczynski inside of the biological programs that are run by the U.S. military or are secondary to the U.S. military, and that's who'd done it.

And then they went through one after another after another within that apparatus. You know, before Bruce Ivins becomes the named culprit, named after he's dead and cannot defend himself, there were 10 others. And in every case, their lives were completely destroyed by the FBI investigation, by being named.

They were deported and have never been allowed back in America, or they were driven to suicide, or they were publicly humiliated, lost their careers, lost marriages, everything imaginable because the FBI never had a way of doing an investigation that would end up in a courtroom.

FLATOW: I'm talking with Laurie Garrett, author of "I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks." It's a new book, but you can't get it in bookstores, right?

GARRETT: No, it's an e-book.

FLATOW: And e-book, and so you have to get it from Amazon?

GARRETT: Yes, you do.

FLATOW: And you can download it onto your Kindle or anything you can buy through Amazon.

GARRETT: Any reading or computer device except the competing readers.

FLATOW: It's 500-some-odd pages. You really just opened your soul. You took notes every day of your life from 9/11...

GARRETT: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and poured it into this book. And being a New Yorker and living here in New York, one of the things that was - that was ever-present all the time was the pile and the plume.

GARRETT: And the plume.

FLATOW: And you write about lying, deception, deceit and everything that went into investigation of that.

GARRETT: Phenomenal, really phenomenal. I mean, you know, first of all, we begin with the sense - you asked me about outrage. So let's start with the outrage that the United States Congress would start saying maybe we won't give money to the surviving rescuers who worked on the pile and inhaled the plume, which was ground zero for four months. Maybe their lives don't really matter, and let's cut that from the budget.

How indignant can I get? Wow, you know, I'll join Jon Stewart in screaming about this one. Well, let's go backwards and ask what was really in the air at ground zero. What were we actually breathing here in the Greater New York area? And who decided to say it was nothing to worry about?

Let's get Wall Street back up and running. Let's tell the world that yeah, you can - it tastes like metal in your mouth, when you walk down the street, you feel like you're sucking on a quarter or a nickel, yeah you're gagging at night. In my case, I was coughing up blood on my pillow in my sleep. Yeah, everybody around you seems suddenly to have something called asthma or for the lack of a better diagnosis called asthma.

And then we get this diagnosis that is an actual medical term now, World Trade Center cough, right? And all this is happening, but we're told by Christie Todd Whitman, as the administrator of the EPA at the time, all is well, perfectly safe. There's no asbestos, there's no undue chemicals, there's nothing for you to worry about.

I spent a huge amount of time obtaining documents, talking to scientists who were actually monitoring the air, who had collected dust and air samplings from all over the Greater New York area, also looking at where they'd never sampled and why. Who made the choices and decisions that, for example Brooklyn, the most populous borough of the city, which for the majority of those four months was where the plume blew, who made the decision that that was not a public health event and specifically decided to exclude all residents of Brooklyn from the World Trade Health Registry? Right?

Who made the decision inside the White House to say we're redacting all comments, references in all press releases to asbestos? And why, in fact, was it the responsibility of the White House to edit every single statement given to the public from the EPA regarding the plume and the pile?

I document that, probably the most deleterious thing about this event. Well, let's back up a second. Consider the elements of what was happening as a sort of chemistry experiment.

So you had 110 stories collapse down, creating an unbelievable pressure effect. You had jet fuel burning at 4,000 degrees, creating a cauldron beneath this high-pressure effect. And what was in that 110 stories? All the plastics of computers and so on, the glass, the limestone and, we now know, asbestos and of the exact size asbestos fibers that are most dangerous to the human lung.

What happens when this whole thing squashes down is that it produces a chemistry soup that has never before been seen on planet Earth under any circumstances and to which no human being has ever previously been exposed.

So I know you covered Mount St. Helens way back when, and one of the interesting things about volcanic eruptions, which would be the closest cousin to what happened to ground zero that we could think of, is that they're acidic, and they...

FLATOW: Let me stop you there because we have to take a break...

GARRETT: OK.

FLATOW: ...and I want to give you plenty of time to talk. I'm talking with Laurie Garrett. She's senior fellow for global health and counsel on - Council on Foreign Relations. She's also a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. Her book is "I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks." It's an e-book available on Amazon.

Stay with us. We'll talk more about this incredible book and get your questions in at 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us, we'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. We're talking this hour with Laurie Garrett. She's a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. She has a new book, "I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks," available on Amazon as an e-book.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And when I, of course, rudely interrupted her, she was talking about the unique chemical signature left after the collapse of the Twin Towers, a chemical that had never been seen before.

GARRETT: Yeah, there was one diphenyl compound produced that has never been seen on Earth before. But the big deal is I was talking about how the closest analogy would be a volcano, but volcanoes are acidic events. And it's always remarkable that people can inhale the plume of a volcano and not have any particular long-standing health problems.

In this case, it was quite the opposite. The reason is that a volcanic emission and all naturally occurring plume-like emissions are acidic, tend to be down around pH three or four. The plume from ground zero got up as high as pH 13. Most of the time, it was around pH 11. That's Drano. That's lye. And there is nothing in your body that clears highly alkali compounds.

So all the little pieces of glass, all the microscopic bits of the building, the computers, were all coated in an alkali solution, if you will, and the body had no way to get these out. So instead of this escalator that creates mucous in an acidic exposure, and you go...

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGH)

GARRETT: ...and you cough it up. In this one you cough and cough and cough and nothing ever comes up, and that's World Trade Center cough.

And what happens with all these little bits of glass and so on that you inhaled, they become encapsulated in your body, and they move and rip up different parts of your organ systems, your lungs and so on. That's why we're still seeing people dying.

As recently as June, we had another declared World Trade Center victim, and I think we'll see more. There are a number of things - you asked me about why do I get outraged. I get outraged because the FBI completely botched the investigation on the anthrax. I get outraged because there's so much evidence that al-Qaida was behind the anthrax mailings and that at least as strong a circumstantial case as was made against Bruce Ivins can be made against al-Qaida even stronger.

We now know, for example, that one of the hijackers of Flight 93, the jet that was crashed into Pennsylvania, tested positive for anthrax, his body did. And he's the same fellow who went to an emergency room in Florida when they were all down there getting flight training, seeking treatment for a strange black wound on his hand that was at the time diagnosed as a possible spider bite. But after the 9/11 incident, the FBI re-interrogated the ER physician, who said: You know what? It could have been anthrax. What was he doing messing with anthrax?

We also now know, thanks to the documents that were only handed over by the FBI to the National Academy of Sciences in December of 2010, we now know from those documents that the cave, the famous Tora Bora cave where they almost caught Osama bin Laden in December 2001 but then Donald Rumsfeld refused to order a airstrike - and that's another whole story - we now know that that Tora Bora cave twice tested positive not only for anthrax but for the same strain, Ames anthrax, as was found in the letters.

FLATOW: Wow. 1-800-989-8255 is the number. Let's talk a bit about this new movie that you had a hand in.

GARRETT: Aha, "Contagion." Yeah.

FLATOW: "Contagion." Give us a little thumbnail of that.

GARRETT: Well, ever since I wrote "The Coming Plague" back in the '90s, I've had one movie company after another come to me and say oh, let's do a movie about an epidemic, and we want you to be involved in advising us to make it really scary, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And that's almost always been hideous and the experience horrible.

And of course, many people have seen the movie with Dustin Hoffman called "Outbreak" in which, miraculously, at the end, from one little squirrel monkey, they get enough antiserum to save thousands of people, - wholly implausible.

And I said, when they approached me, it was Steven Soderbergh as director, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sherr who were involved in "Erin Brockovich" and a whole host of fantastic movies, and screenwriter Scott Burns, who had just come off doing "The Bourne Ultimatum," starring Matt Damon.

They all came to me and said look, let's - we'd like to bring you on board to help us make a really, you know, right movie, a really scientifically accurate look at what a pandemic of a really virulent organism would look like. How would the world respond? What would we do? What would transpire over time? And not hysteria but as accurate as possible.

And so I worked on this script with Scott Burns for about three and a half years, and I think - I think people are going to be blown away when they see this film. Soderbergh is a genius as a director, and many of you probably realize that his masterpiece was "Traffic."

And one of the signatures of "Traffic" was that it assumed great intelligence on the part of the audience. There's never a moment when a character sort of turns to the camera and says oh, here's what's going on. You know, you have to pay attention.

And it had five different plot sets, and the characters never quite knew about each other, but the audience could see how they connected. So this is structured very much the same way. You have plot unfolding at the CDC in Atlanta. You have plot unfolding in Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Macao, London, interior of China and so on.

FLATOW: Weren't you afraid that they were going to just make another Hollywood "Towering Inferno" sort of movie?

GARRETT: Yes. I was very afraid of that, and I told them straight up, our very first meeting in a restaurant here in New York. I said OK, I have conditions, and they don't have anything to do with money and the usual stuff that you Hollywood people have conditions about. My conditions are number one, this is not going to be about an evil scientist, and you're not going to make scientists look bad.

Number two, it's - everybody's not - it's not going to come from outer space. Number three, everybody's not going to turn into aliens, and the last person alive is not going to be Will Smith. Number four, you're not going to find a miracle cure where the whole world's saved from one little monkey.

And number five, you're not going to portray Africans as, you know, the source of all disease and all horror on the planet. And then finally I said, you know, I think it has to be as much about the nature of public health and global response and cooperation versus competition on the world stage as anything else. And I think you're going to be amazed when you see this picture.

FLATOW: And they agreed to all of that.

GARRETT: They did.

FLATOW: When is it coming out?

GARRETT: It comes out nationwide September 9. The world premiere is in New York September 7.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get one quick call in before we have to say goodbye. Let's go to Audrey(ph) in Effie, Minnesota. Hi, Audrey.

AUDREY: Yeah, hi, thanks for taking my call. I haven't read your book, but I'm glad to hear that there are people out there who are outraged. I lost a friend, a family friend at 9/11, but she didn't die that day. She died five years later from this - from the diseases, and she had some sort of horrendous cancer in her blood that just took her out. Like, she felt sick, and a week later, she was dead.

And I just feel that as a nation, we have made so many missteps, and when this horrible thing happened, there was an opportunity to unify people, and everybody ended up so divided. And I'm glad that you've brought to light the fact that there are all these things that government wasn't doing. There's so many polls today that say we don't trust government anymore.

Maybe this is why. Maybe these are the types of things that we find out about that make it very hard for us to trust politicians who use these types of horrible events to further their own agendas, like war in Iraq. So I'll hang up and take your response.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Have a good weekend.

GARRETT: Well, I couldn't agree more with her. And in fact, that reminds me that I have a website where I would like people to post their own 9/11 stories and reactions. It's www.lauriegarrett.com, and you'll see a tell your 9/11 story. I would love - to that listener, if you would tell us about your friend.

FLATOW: One last question before we go. Did the government do anything right?

GARRETT: Yes, there were things done right. I think it was correct - for example, I was very impressed with how the local public health officials and local law enforcement officials in New York responded and the cooperation between local law enforcement and local public health, all the way out into the anthrax investigations.

I think the greatest mistakes were all made at the federal level.

FLATOW: Are we ever going to learn the real truth about those mistakes?

GARRETT: There are members of Congress that want the anthrax investigation reopened. There are members of Congress that feel it is possible that it was a singular event, the attacks of 9/11 and the anthrax mailings, carried out by the same people all as a continuum. And when you get into my book, you'll see more and more reasons that that is a reasonable way to approach how you view the situation.

FLATOW: How do you think people are going to react to your book do you think? I mean, I - we've seen how our - the public - is - it wants to read it, but the people who are in power, are they're going to be very angry with what they read in your book?

GARRETT: Well, there's certainly many people I named in the book who were in power at the time or maybe still are who will not be happy. There are people that worked at the CDC and were involved in taking the events of 9/11 and nearly destroying the Centers for Disease Control as a almost response and excuse. I think Tom Daschle may have mixed feelings about some of the things I have to say. And certainly, members of the Senate and the Congress. I mean, it's pretty outrageous that we had no basis for discerning who's in charge and what's the jurisdiction when Capitol Hill is attacked. We still don't.

FLATOW: You have to - this - thank you. There's so much to talk about here. It's Laurie Garrett's new book, and it's "I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attack." Laurie is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. She's won every prize there is, including the Pulitzer. And you can get her book on Amazon. It's an eBook.

GARRETT: It's an eBook available for every platform, except the competing readers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Thank you, Laurie.

GARRETT: Thank you.

FLATOW: This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Thank you for coming in today.

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