Book Review - After the crash

Gary Pomerantz explores tragedy’s human dynamic in Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds

One of the passengers aboard the doomed aircraft prayed silently. One frantically wrote a note to her family on a detached paperback book cover. One was furious with God. One smiled pleasantly and wished his seatmate “good luck.”

No, this is not a description of the final minutes of one of Sept. 11’s ill-fated flights. Rather, these are passengers on ASA Flight 529, which crashed near Carrollton in August 1995. Of the 29 aboard the small commuter plane, 19 survived the crash, which was caused by a severe engine malfunction.

Events leading up to the crash — and the impact it had on dozens of lives afterward — are meticulously explored in Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds, the new book by former Atlantan Gary Pomerantz. The tragedy of Flight 529 may not compare in scope to the carnage of Sept. 11, but the stories share common themes of heroism in the face of disaster.

“This is not a book about the plane,” says Pomerantz. “It’s a book about the people inside the plane. It’s a story of everyday people transformed into heroes. And we’re seeing a lot of this now in New York.”

It’s just a few days after the terrorist attacks, and the author’s mood is grim, his thoughts on the book often coming in grandiose life-and-death terms — which is not surprising given the current cultural climate.

“I think some of the most enduring stories in history, the ones we keep returning to, are Shakespeare and the Bible. Those stories are filled with tragedy and human suffering. But the reason we go back to them is they have a redemptive quality. They allow us to see ourselves, to see our lives in context. And I think the story of ASA 529 has much of that same redemptive quality.”

When ASA 529 crashed, Pomerantz was working as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and doing research for his first book, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. He followed news reports of the incident, but was surprised at how quickly the story vanished. Lingering questions led the reporter to interview survivors and victims’ families more than two years later. The result was a seven-part series that ran in the AJC in November 1997.

After the series, the writer was inundated by e-mails and letters from readers. The response, he says, was unlike anything he’s ever experienced. Plus, he still had some loose ends to tie up. So he decided to tackle the topic in a longer form.

Although a good portion of the material in Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds originates from the newspaper series, Pomerantz says the book is unique, describing its relationship to the series as the difference between an instamatic photo and an X-ray. The book goes into significant detail about one passenger, Jennifer Grunbeck, who had not granted Pomerantz an interview for the series. Her story, of surviving the crash with burns over 92 percent of her body, emerges as one of the book’s most emotive elements.

The gripping, sometimes grotesque Nine Minutes may seem like a departure for a writer whose last work was an often dry history of Atlanta’s political structure. Pomerantz, however, sees a correlation.

“Both books are entirely about people — who and what we are,” he says. “One was about race, and this one was about how we respond to a tragedy. When you get to the greatest stress of all, the stress of panic and fear, what moves some people to heroism and others to cowardice or shame?”

He recounts a news report of a disabled woman in the World Trade Center who was carried out by a co-worker she hardly knew. “That’s the kind of thing you will see happening in moments like this,” he says.

Pomerantz conducted about 500 interviews for the book, tracking down people only tangentially connected to the flight and traveling to eight states in the process. The research required that he acquire an overnight education in fields as varied as material sciences and psychology. He also had to learn a great deal about aviation.

Since completing Nine Minutes, Pomerantz, 40, has left his post as a visiting journalism professor at Emory and relocated with his wife and kids to San Francisco. He’s focusing entirely on his writing these days, exploring options for his next “people-driven” work, which he hopes will have a “timeless quality” similar to that of his past two books.

Despite being someone who’s intimately acquainted with the ways in which a plane can fail, and even in light of the events of Sept. 11, Pomerantz says he isn’t afraid of air travel.

“Truly I love to fly,” he says. “I love to be up in the sky looking down and seeing my life in context, how small I am. What I’m afraid of are those grouchy people behind the rental car counter.”

Gary Pomerantz reads from and signs copies of Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds Mon., Oct. 1, at 7 p.m. at Chapter 11 Bookstore, Ansley Mall, 1544 Piedmont Ave. 404-872-7986.??