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Jim Dwyer, About New York


Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist, died on Thursday after a four-decade career in journalism. Here’s a selection of his writing for The New York Times, where he had worked since 2001, as chosen by his colleagues.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Dwyer described how Jan Demczur, a window washer, used a squeegee to free himself and others from an elevator that had been trapped on the 50th floor of 1 World Trade Center.

They faced a wall, stenciled with the number “50.” That particular elevator bank did not serve the 50th floor, so there was no need for an opening. To escape, they would have to make one themselves. Mr. Demczur felt the wall. Sheetrock. Having worked in construction in his early days as a Polish immigrant, he knew that it could be cut with a sharp knife. No one had a knife. From his bucket, Mr. Demczur drew his squeegee.

ImageJan Demczur, a window washer at the World Trade Center, with the squeegee he used to escape an elevator in the north tower on Sept. 11, 2001.
Credit…Carol T. Powers for The New York Times

In a 2002 article written with Eric Lipton, Kevin Flynn, James Glanz and Ford Fessenden, Mr. Dwyer helped piece together the last phone conversations, emails and voice mail messages of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks to create a chronicle of the final 102 minutes at the World Trade Center. The reporting was later expanded into a book by Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Flynn.

Yet like messages in an electronic bottle from people marooned in some distant sky, their last words narrate a world that was coming undone. A man sends an email message asking, “Any news from the outside?” before perching on a ledge at Windows on the World. A woman reports a colleague is smacking useless sprinkler heads with his shoe. A husband calmly reminds his wife about their insurance policies, then says that the floor is groaning beneath him, and tells her that she and their children meant the world to him.

No single call can describe scenes that were unfolding at terrible velocities in many places. Taken together though, the words from the upper floors offer not only a broad and chilling view of the devastated zones, but the only window onto acts of bravery, decency and grace at a brutal time.

After George Steinbrenner, the bombastic owner of the New York Yankees, died in 2010, Mr. Dwyer posited that “maybe the rule against speaking ill of the dead does not apply to rich lunatic uncles.”

The life of George Steinbrenner is a ramp across modern New York, a bridge that spans the whirlpool of one man’s spinning psyche and the transformation of America’s biggest, baddest city. He raged. He wept. He won. He brought back prodigals, forgave them their urine tests. He broke laws, promises, lives. He did charity. He grafted his ego onto the back pages of newspapers. He blasted Frank Sinatra through stadium loudspeakers. He championed ordinary New Yorkers, then took them for every last penny.

Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times

In 2012, Mr. Dwyer wrote the first of several pieces about Rory Staunton, a 12-year-old Queens boy who died of septic shock after he dived for a basketball at his school and cut his arm. Mr. Dwyer’s reporting raised questions about whether doctors should have acted on signs of sepsis earlier. New York State later ordered changes that led to earlier detection and treatment and fewer deaths from sepsis.

For a moment, an emergency room doctor stepped away from the scrum of people working on Rory Staunton, 12, and spoke to his parents.

“Your son is seriously ill,” the doctor said.

“How seriously?” Rory’s mother, Orlaith Staunton, asked.

The doctor paused.

“Gravely ill,” he said.

How could that be?

After a gunman stormed an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six adults in 2012, Mr. Dwyer told the story of one family’s race to find their daughter at the school that day.

As Ms. Urbina headed for the door, her phone began buzzing with text messages from friends and other parents. It is a 20-minute drive from Bethel to the school. The landscape rolled by unseen; a friend from the other end of town spoke to her on her cellphone, relaying news from someone who was monitoring a police scanner. None of it told her what she wanted to know: What about Lenie, her 9-year-old daughter?

Credit…Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

In 2015, Mr. Dwyer wrote about the unresolved search for justice in the death of Clifford Glover, a Black boy who had been shot in the back and killed by a white police officer more than four decades earlier.

It was 1973, long before anyone could imagine hashtag declarations of solidarity and protest, the kind of message to the world that today might read, #IamCliffordGloverInTheFourthGrade. No one could pull out a phone to make a video of Clifford Glover, a 10-year-old running from a plainclothes police officer with a gun who had just jumped out of a white Buick Skylark in Jamaica, Queens, on a spring morning in 1973.

Before Donald J. Trump became president, Mr. Dwyer recounted the time Mr. Trump went to a public school in the Bronx to serve as Principal for a Day and “set a new land-speed record for oafishness.”

P.S. 70 was just south of the Cross Bronx Expressway, so Mr. Trump helpfully explained that Trump Tower was in the “inner city called 57th and Fifth.” He found his own comment amusing, but wasn’t totally pleased with follow-up questions.

“Why did you offer us sneakers if you could give us scholarships?” Andres Rodriguez, 11, asked.

Mr. Trump demanded to know who told Andres to ask him that. “No one,” the boy said.

Writing in 2017, Mr. Dwyer evoked a filthier era in New York, when the city was shrouded in smog and power plants were fueled with coal and heavy grades of oil, which led to noxious emissions.

In the 1960s, my playmates and I stopped everything when it began “snowing” ash from incinerated garbage. We chased tiny scraps of partly burned paper that floated in the air as if they were blackened snowflakes.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

In 2015, Mr. Dwyer observed Pope Francis as he bade farewell to rivers of people in Philadelphia at the end of his first visit to the United States.

He met them on parkways and in prisons, churches and arenas, schools and shelters. The shape and form of families had changed in ways long resisted by the official church. Not by Francis. He said spiritual vibrancy could come from any “family, people, region or religion” and pledged gratitude, not yearning for a lost time, or the pointing of scolding fingers.

“In my own home, do we shout?” he asked in closing. “Or, do we speak to each other in love and tenderness?”

At the airplane door, Francis turned to bid farewell. He lifted his hand, wobbled, then finished the blessing.

Last year, Mr. Dwyer wrote about “When They See Us,” a four-part Netflix series based on the lives of five men who were wrongfully convicted and sent to prison as teenagers for raping and nearly killing a woman who was jogging in Central Park in 1989. Mr. Dwyer had covered parts of the trials for New York Newsday, and expressed regret that he had not been more skeptical.

This is a story of the biggest story of its day, a crime that set a high-water mark for depravity, an urban atrocity that caused existential hand-wringing for America’s biggest city.

It was a story that — over 30 years — changed from solid to liquid to gas, all but vanishing.

In his final About New York column, published in May, Mr. Dwyer found a historical echo between his great-grandmother’s efforts to feed her family during the flu pandemic of 1918 and New Yorkers feeding the sick during the coronavirus pandemic.

She, it turned out, saved the lives of the seven grandchildren. Her daughter, Mary, and her husband, Paddy Dwyer, survived to have five more children. The grandchildren of Nan the Point in just that one house would go on to issue 45 of their own offspring. In times to come, when we are all gone, people not yet born will walk in the sunshine of their own days because of what women and men did at this hour to feed the sick, to heal and to comfort.


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The Times’s “About New York” columnist, discusses his path to journalism and his column.



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