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I have recently been reading a lot of history – biographies of Anne Frank and her contemporaries, witness accounts of the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I find these real-life stories of immense bravery extremely inspiring. The most horrific world event I have so far lived through must be September 11th 2001 – or 911, as it is often called. Like most others, I remember exactly where I was when I saw the tragedy unfold on the TV News. It was an awful day, one which seems to have changed the world in many ways. I found it terrifying enough sitting at home in England, watching the planes hit, the people jumping to certain death, the huge Twin Towers crumbling. Imagine what it would have been like to have been in New York at the time. Worse still, to have been inside the second tower as it collapsed. This was what happened to Richard ‘Pitch’ Picciotto, Battalion Commander of the New York Fire Department and author of the book Last Man Down. I find it is important for me to read these kinds of books. It’s not in a ghoulish way, but to educate myself, to elucidate, to answer my unanswered questions, to form a better understanding of the events. In some ways, 911 is too recent for it to have slotted neatly into its place in history. I was hoping this book would help. This is the account of Picciotto, who was on duty that day and raced to the scene after the planes hit the World Trade Centre. He went inside and began climbing the stairs to see if he could help rescue survivors. He survived to tell his story of rescue, fear, escape and the aftermath. I had read reviews of the book over on Ciao and it sounded a compelling and educational read. Unfortunately, I found it neither. Richard Picciotto is unquestionably a hero. Firefighters do an essential job in the hardest of conditions and should be admired for this. To be in New York on 911 and to continue to do your job under such circumsta
nces deserves awe and praise in equal measure. Having said that, I would now like to be controversial. I don’t like Picciotto at all. While reading Last Man Down, I found his to be an irritating voice of narration. He seemed arrogant, immodest and at times, downright rude. He appeared to emphasise his own leadership and how he took the right option and made the right decision, but in doing so, his tone belittles his peers. As Picciotto leaps from rubble to rubble while escaping the wreckage, the firefighter behind him pauses and it is only Pitch’s quick thinking that urges him on to safety. He criticises a colleague for failing to mention he had a mobile phone with him. He is annoyed at another for wasting the batteries of the walkie-talkie. Reading the book, I found myself disliking him more and more, finally concluding he is a rather unpleasant man and not someone I would wish to know. Of course, liking the central figure is not essential to the enjoyment of reading their accounts. I usually choose to read about events or people that I have an interest in, but some of the best autobiographies have been about people I barely like. However this is not a biography or an autobiography, it is a personal eyewitness account of one man – and it fails on many levels. The book itself is often hard to read. You would never expect a book based around the events of 911 to be dull or boring, but this is. He takes great pains to describe the layout of the building, to list the names of other firefighters in there and to explain the equipment they had with them. While some of this is integral to his account, most of it is not and comes across as pointless repetition and padding. The book only just manages 200 pages, after all. Another thing that grated with me was the use of language. I have written about 911 myself. Even watching the events from the safe distance I was at, I was inspired to write about my
emotions, the sights I saw, how I felt and the intense fear and insecurity that welled up inside me. I even wrote a poem about it at the time. You would expect such a situation to inspire the most emotive and evocative description. Unfortunately, this does not happen with Picciotto. He regularly uses swear words to get his feelings across and fails to use any inventive or beautiful prose throughout the entire book. He writes as if he is talking, using colloquialisms and street vocabulary like ‘kinda’. His reaction to the first tower collapsing was a blunt ‘What the f*** was that?’ I know he is a firefighter and not an author, so you would not expect the finesse of a polished writer, but this was a huge contributing factor in what I concluded was a disappointing book. The language used made it a hard book to read at times and the arrogance of Picciotto compounded this. But what of the information level? Did I learn anything new about 911, as I had hoped? Well, a few snippets, but overall, no. If I had finished the book feeling more educated and enlightened, I could have forgiven the paucity of language or my dislike for the man himself. I am just relieved I borrowed this from the library and didn’t bother shelling out £16.99 for the hardback. I hope there will be better accounts of 911 that emerge over time, because on every point I hoped this one would achieve, it failed to deliver. If you fancy reading a book that is dull, repetitive, badly written and paints a convincing picture of Picciotto as an over-confident arrogant asshole, then this is a good choice. If, like me, you don’t, we’ll wait together for a more inspiring account to come along.
Chief Richard Pitch Picciotto, the highest-ranking firefighter to survive the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the collapse of the Twin Towers