The fate of ‘New York’s Bravest’ lost on 9/11 and its sobering lessons

A new book, ‘Don’t Look Back’ by former investigative Daily News reporter Joe Calderone, offers a look at how the city responds to and learns from a disaster, so it can improve its response to future emergencies.

Members of the New York Fire Department carry American flags during the FDNY Memorial Service at St. Patrick's Cathedral on September 11, 2021 in New York City.

Members of the New York Fire Department carry American flags during the FDNY Memorial Service at St. Patrick's Cathedral on September 11, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Joe Calderone, former Daily News investigative reporter and Newsday alum, has written a novel about one aspect of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent days. “Don’t Look Back” is a novel, barely, that reminds us of the enduring pain and anguish of victims’ families and the unanswered questions that might have eased some of that suffering. 

The book is an easy read because it focuses on one aspect of the disaster – the loss of 343 firefighters on one day – one morning actually – and the role faulty fire department radios may have played in those towers. This is a story Calderone covered while working at the Daily News, and one he believes has not gotten as much attention as it deserved. Using as reference works “The 9/11 Commission Report,” and books like “102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers” by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, as well as “Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11” by Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins, Calderone takes the reader inside the twin towers and city government as it grapples with the fallout. 

The author creates a readable tale populated with composite characters that may create a parlor guessing game for some readers. The characters, though, serve a larger truth, bringing the reader into close proximity with the widows and parents of those lost, as well as their need to get answers. And, naturally, there is an indefatigable reporter and a crusty editor who surmount many obstacles thrown in their way by friend and foe.

Calderone’s background as a tabloid reporter working on deadline serves him and the reader very well as the story follows multiple characters but never strays from the main plotline. The haunting question, to paraphrase Howard Baker’s line about Watergate is “What did those firefighters hear and what did they do?” Did they hear the evacuation order or not? Did the radios issued to the firefighters work in the high rise towers? Could the firefighters have heard the order but ignored it to fulfill their sense of mission, to leave no one behind? Was their bravery that day their death warrant or had the department and the city failed them with faulty radio equipment? 

These questions are not just a plot device for this book. How the city responds to an event and what can be learned from a disaster can improve future emergency response conditions. The radio issues in question in “Don’t Look Back” were the same issues raised after the initial World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The question becomes “What did the city do or fail to do and why?” And there are other issues facing our city that need to be addressed before some new calamity strikes. Rising sea levels that threaten neighborhoods all around the five boroughs come to mind after another early warning episode, Superstorm Sandy, which exposed so much vulnerable infrastructure, including roads, power plants, and low-lying neighborhoods.

In reminding us of this one issue Calderone’s book performs a service to the city and its emergency responders, particularly the FDNY. Who is responsible to make sure that responders have every advantage in the mayhem of a crisis? When does the ethos of an organization fail its members? How do city leaders keep a focus on the training, procurement and planning items that are not newsworthy until there is an epic fail?

“Don’t Look Back” is not your typical novel beach read. But it is an easy format to deal with the complexities of a monumental disaster and hopefully will remind those in government and elsewhere that when it comes to planning, equipment and training, there should be no shortcuts, no favoritism. 

Bill Cunningham is the founder of Cunningham Strategies. He previously worked for the administrations of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Hugh Carey and was chief of staff and campaign advisor for Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan.

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