Bikeman

The Boston Globe

Cycle of life

'Bikeman' explains a journalist's experience on Sept. 11

By David Mehegan

HARWICH PORT — Tom Flynn is a tough, experienced newsman with a dispassionate eye for facts. The veteran TV writer/producer had covered the biggest stories of the past 30 years: Nelson Mandela's rise in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the violence in Tiananmen Square, wars and natural disasters. He'd witnessed events, gathered facts, written tight copy in the no-frills style of TV news.

But for all his professional detachment, for years he could not express the full truth of what happened to him on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Now he has done it, in a form that he never anticipated: a book-length narrative poem called "Bikeman." In 38 cantos over 73 pages, "Bikeman" excavates the horror, terror, and sadness buried in the writer for six years. "I don't think there was a better way to tell this story," he said in an interview at his summer home.

In 2001 Flynn was a producer for "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather," and before that had worked on the morning news, "60 Minutes," and "48 Hours." He and his wife, writer and media professor Nancy Reardon, live in lower Manhattan, near the corner of 10th Street and Sixth Avenue. That beautiful fall morning, he was enjoying his coffee and newspaper on his roof deck. Normally, he would ride his bike to work at the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street. But before he left for work, the first plane roared in from the north, too low, and crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, about a mile away.

In 1993, the "48 Hours" team had decided not to devote a full hour to the previous attack on the towers, with an explosive-laden van in the garage underneath. "I was one voice among others, saying, 'It's a gas-main break — a good local story,' " said Flynn, who is 61. "So we didn't cover it, and later I said, 'I'm not going to make that mistake again.' " He called the CBS desk and said, "I'm going down there," threw a notebook and pen in a small canvas bag, jumped on his bike, rode west to the riverside esplanade, and turned south. Then the second plane hit the south tower.

He drew near the southeast corner of the blazing south tower, near the corner of Liberty and West streets. From above, a blizzard of paper fell like snow, and something else — human beings. "There was so much stuff coming down, including people," Flynn said, "that we moved back to a circle where the ambulances were lining up."

Then the south tower began to collapse. "Run, run!" voices screamed, and Flynn and a cluster of others fled the thundering, boiling avalanche. Engulfed by the dark cloud, they stumbled into an underground parking garage. In darkness they felt their way along the walls, looking for a way out. Flynn was convinced he had found his tomb. Then they found an exit. One of the others dubbed Flynn "Bikeman," because he refused to leave his bike behind. Moving west, the others ducked into the lobby of an intact building. But Flynn was afraid to go inside again, and continued on through the impenetrable cloud, pushing his bike. Continued...


New Haven Register

'Bikeman' offers aching look at 9/11 in epic poetry from ex-CBS producer

By Donna Doherty, Register Arts Editor

Sept. 11, 2001. Everyone remembers the glorious cobalt-blue sky on that perfect late-summer day. CBS producer Thomas Flynn was reading the paper on the deck of his downtown Manhattan apartment as he did every morning, when he heard a sound that raised the hair on his neck as well as his journalistic instincts.

"A plane went over the trees so low. This time of year the foliage is still there, so I couldn't really see, but, boy, you could hear it: that pounding sound, plus the thrusting was right above me," he says by phone from his home. "It was trying to gain speed right above me. I thought, 'What's wrong with this picture?' It was going the wrong way. Planes don't go uptown. They go below the river."

As former CBS anchorman Dan Rather's go-to producer and writer, Flynn remembered how a feature story for "48 Hours" on the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center had been vetoed as just a local story that turned out to be an international one. He instinctively knew those towers were again going to figure in this story, and said, "I'm not making that mistake again."

Then he heard a hit, and he knew there was no mistaking what had happened. "I knew I had a story, but I didn't know how big a story it turned out to be."

Flynn hopped on the bike he used to tool around the city on assignments, and headed toward the towers, first checking in with the office. He had no camera, but figured that wouldn't be a problem. He commandeered Eddie Remy, a Jamaican guy at Merrill Lynch who had a new video camera he'd been using at the scene for about half an hour.

What happened next was a hell worse than "Dante's Inferno," says Flynn, who ran for his life with everyone else as the towers eventually gave way, but not until Flynn saw a second plane plunge into the south tower.

It wasn't until 2005 after his long association with CBS had been downsized out of his life, after he pulled the notes he'd taken about that day — that Flynn, re-reading "Dante's Inferno" at his place on Cape Cod, knew he'd found the perfect format to tell the story of that day. The result is "Bikeman" ($12.99, Andrews McMeel Publishing), a raw, gut-wrenching, but achingly beautiful, 70-page epic poem about Flynn's 9-11, for which Rather wrote the foreword.

He had no idea what he was going to do with his notes, but he stumbled on a publisher through a fortuitous combination of Googling an agent acknowledged in a quirky book and finding out the agent was a neighbor. He was "astonished, but heartened," when he got the call about its acceptance.

He admits that some of the writing was probably cathartic, but there are still areas he will now close off again.

"I never addressed it until I wrote it," he says, when asked about the nightmare of watching helplessly as people hurled themselves from the burning towers. "I never talked about it. That was all packed away safely, so I didn't have to relive it. ... This is about as close as I want to get to it."

It is a grotesque circus performance,
a high-wire act without the wire,
without a net. They fall
like unparachuted sky divers.
For them, all hope is lost.

Flynn never let go of his bicycle, even while fumbling through the chalky darkness of what ultimately turned out to be a parking garage. "It was my savior. I knew if I held onto it, it would be OK. It was my lifeline. I never let go of it, and boy, it was hard to keep hold of it," he said, though before he could remove the dust from it afterward, it was stolen.

Some things he couldn't face for years. So why relive them?

"It was all part of what happened that day," he says. "To ignore it would be dishonest. There weren't many journalists down there. I felt part of my job was to report it," Flynn says quietly.

A veteran of hundreds of big stories, including the uprising in Tiananmen Square, Flynn had always been the observer, perched outside the story, recording it for others. But this time, he was in the trenches in the dual role of victim and working journalist.

The fallen tower carries
flame-consumed human remains.
They are the ashes of ashes to ashes.
Dust of the good, dust of the evil.
I breathe from a sea of the death air.
Who of them is within me,
baked in my lungs, seared in my mouth,
dredged in my ears and in my eyes?

He raced back to CBS's 57th Street headquarters and calmly went on the air around noon, dust and all, reporting with Rather until midnight, when he pedaled back home, carrying some of the stories deep within him, until now.

timesunion.com

Epic horrors of 9/11 recast in verse

By TRESCA WEINSTEIN, Special to the Times Union First published: Sunday, September 7, 2008

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Thomas F. Flynn, then a writer and producer for CBS television, heard the roar of a plane from his apartment in downtown Manhattan. He jumped on his bike to investigate — and descended into his own version of hell.

So when Flynn, an Albany native, sat down four years later to write about what he'd experienced that day, it made a kind of sense to him that what emerged was in the form of an epic poem, inspired by Dante's "Inferno."

"It surprised me, but it felt right," Flynn recalled in a recent telephone interview. "It's a big-deal event, so it can handle a big-deal presentation. It's an old-fashioned form, but it works pretty well for a modern tale."

Flynn's 70-page memoir in verse, "Bikeman" (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $12.99) is out this month. Coincidentally, Flynn is a graduate of the Albany Academy, also the alma mater of Stephen Vincent Benet, author of the well-known 1928 epic poem "John Brown's Body."

"Every 100 years or so, Albany produces somebody who writes an epic poem," Flynn said with a laugh. "It says a lot for how Albany Academy teaches classics and Latin."

Flynn plans to stop by his alma mater — which also produced his former CBS colleague, Andy Rooney — when he's in town in October to address a meeting of English teachers.

He will also give a reading at the Bookhouse in Stuyvesant Plaza on Oct. 25.

The son of Dr. James Henry Flynn (his grandfather, also Dr. James Flynn, was commissioner of health in Troy) and Ann Fitzgerald Flynn, Thomas was born at Albany's A.N. Brady Hospital and grew up in Loudonville. He went to Union College, broke into reporting at a Westchester County newspaper and moved on to a post as morning drive writer at radio station WINS in New York City — which led him to CBS, where he spent 30 years, including a decade working on "48 Hours."

He left CBS four years ago and now freelances, working with famed journalist Dan Rather — who wrote the forward for "Bikeman" — on the HDNet show "Dan Rather Reports," writing for magazines and working on a documentary about the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution near his second home on Cape Cod.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Thomas acted on his journalist's instincts when he grabbed a pen, note pad and phone, got on his bike and headed toward the towers and the clouds of smoke. He watched as those trapped on the highest floors leapt to their deaths, falling "like unparachuted skydivers," he writes in "Bikeman." He saw the first tower begin to crumble: "The concrete skin/bellies out like the throat of a frog/about to croak. It stretches,/elastically until it bursts."

Flynn took refuge in a nearby parking garage, where he was trapped by fallen debris for what he estimates was about an hour; during those long moments, he says, he was at times overwhelmed by fear, an experience he writes about eloquently in "Bikeman."

With compassion and a reporter's eye for details, he draws poignant images of the tragic sights he witnessed once he emerged. In a section called "Death March," Flynn describes his long, quiet walk north with a group of other survivors: "It was an awful stillness, way past panic," he said. Continue...


Cape Cod Times

In poetry, author finds way to express the horror of 9/11

By LAURIE HIGGINS, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, September 07, 2008

It is impossible to imagine any American who doesn't remember exactly where he or she was on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first horrific images of the nation under attack blazed across the television. Most of us simply watched the footage again and again in a daze of tears and horror, but those who were on the front line recording history in the making became survivors as well as witnesses.

Seasoned journalist Thomas F. Flynn is one such survivor, and he shares his story of Sept. 11 in the newly released "Bikeman," an epic poem written in the style of Dante's "Inferno."

From "Bikeman":

This Forever September Morning
Survival is not a rapturous
rebirth, not a glorious
cloud-bursting return to life.
Survival is the absence of death.
It is a subdued, a hushed existence
where no joyful songs
are sung by seraphim.
It's a middle place; a place
between lightness and dark,
between water and ice,
between wakefulness and sleep,
between pain and the tears,
between now and forever.
But it does have an advantage
over death. I live to talk about it,
to relate the tale as it happens,
not only its extremities and cruelty,
but also the goodness that flourishes too.
So, even though unmade then and there,
like Ishmael, a survivor from
a sea of doom, I return to tell this tale.

"Bikeman" is a gripping page-turner that captures all of the harrowing moments and fear of that day in a memoir that Flynn had never imagined himself writing.

Flynn was at home in New York City reading the morning paper over coffee when he heard the first jet roar overhead, so low it seemed on top of him.

"It did tickle my brain, but not like, oh my God," he explained in a telephone interview from his other home in Harwich Port. But as he heard the plane rev up just before it hit the North Tower, he realized something was terribly wrong, because the plane was flying in the wrong direction. It should have been traveling uptown on the river, not downtown in the middle of Manhattan.

At the time, Flynn was working as a writer-producer for CBS News, but earlier in his career he worked as a writer and producer for "48 Hours." He was with that program when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, and he was part of the team that initially believed it was probably just a gas main blowing up.

This time, he knew better.

"That morning I said to my wife, Nancy, 'We're under attack,'" he says. "And I got on my bike and I headed down before the second one hit. There was no question in my mind, and I wasn't going to make a mistake on this one."

He was about 10 blocks away when he saw the fireball as the second plane hit the South Tower. As soon as he arrived at the base of the World Trade Center, he found a cameraman who worked for the audiovisual department of Merrill Lynch and hired him on the spot. As Flynn stood inside the police line helplessly watching people above beg for help or, even worse, give up hope and jump, he says that no one anticipated that the towers would collapse.

Along with others at the scene, he found himself running for his life as the rubble crashed down, filling the streets with debris. Flynn sought shelter in a parking garage and survived, still holding on to his bike even after a medic named Avi gently suggested that he abandon it.

"I wasn't going to let the bike go, because I thought, and to this day I have the same feeling, if I let this go, I'm not going to get out of here," he says. "I think he was probably right, I should have left it. It was a bit of an impediment, but it did get me out of there, and it got me up to the broadcast center."

Flynn arrived at CBS still covered with ashes and told his story to the world. He always intended to write about his experiences in a more personal way, but his job producing and writing for CBS was extremely busy, with a lot of travel, so he simply didn't get around to it right away.

"Within the first few days, I sat down and just wrote every moment of the morning from immediate memory," he says.

He didn't get back to those notes until spring 2005, when he found himself alone at the home on the Cape he and his wife bought shortly after the attacks as a refuge from the city. He dug out the notes but had no idea what he was going to do with them. At the same time, he happened to pull a copy of Dante's "Inferno" off his bookshelf to reread it.

Every morning Flynn is on the Cape, he bikes along the rail trail, and one morning inspiration hit. "I started to daydream my story and Dante's story of his journey into hell, and they seemed an awful lot alike in so many ways," he says. "I started using the rhythm and the cantos and general outline framework of the 'Inferno,' and I was writing it as I was riding. I'd get back home, and I'd put down all of what I had worked on on the bike path. By the end of the summer, I had about 15,000 words."

The finished book is about half that size. It took Flynn two years of cutting and editing to get it exactly the way he wanted. "Poetry is very demanding," he says. "You get something right, and the thing next to it really clangs. Then you get the next canto polished, and the next one up is pedestrian.

"It's very different from any writing I'd ever done before. It's very satisfying when you get it, but it really does require that you polish and polish and polish and get the metaphor right, get the rhythm right, get the imagery right, get the word right."

Despite the difficulty, he felt in his heart that an epic poem was the most fitting form for his story. He put his pen aside May 1, 2007, after working on the poem every day for nearly two years.

"It's a heightened language for a heightened event, and there was no question in my mind that this was right," he says. "There was a lot of question in my mind about what I was going to do with it. The last epic poem published in the United States by an American was, like, 1916, so it's not the Harvard Business School model for how to succeed in writing."

To his surprise, the path to publication was relatively smooth, which he credits in part to the reaction people have when reading the poem. Flynn has discovered readers want to tell their own stories about 9/11, so he has a section on his Web site, www.bikeman1.com, where people can share their experiences and thoughts.

"For me, it's really interesting to hear other people's stories, and I like that the book motivates that," he says.


NPR, May 30, 2008

LIGHTS, CAMERA — READ!

Ever wonder who the voice is on the other end of that audiobook that kept you company during that long cross country drive? Or what it takes to put one of those things together? Do they do it in one take or do the narrators mess up a lot? Do they talk with their hands when they're recording these books? Do they ever get dry mouth? And who are these people anyway? BPP Producer Win Rosenfeld sought answers to these questions by going to witness the process. Recently we paid a visit to a Manhattan audio studio where famed audio book narrator Jim Dale (voice behind all the Harry Potter books) was recording a new book called Bikeman by Tom Flynn. It's the story of how Flynn survived the Trade Tower attacks on 9/11 and it's told in the form of an epic poem. It was interesting to watch the process — you can check it out for yourselves here!

Watch the Video


Boston Globe, May 19, 2008

INTO THE DARKNESS

Posted by David Mehegan

The most unusual book about the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001 is due out in September from publisher Andrews McMeel. It's a book-length (76 pp.) epic poem called Bikeman, by Thomas F. Flynn. Flynn was a CBS News writer who lived in Manhattan. On the morning the World Trade Center towers were hit by hijacked airliners, he jumped on his bicycle and headed for the scene.

World Trade Center

What he found and experienced was a round-trip like that of Dante, and the hellish scenes around the towers eventually prompted him to write Bikeman, in 38 blank verse cantos. It is surely the first epic poem with an introduction by Dan Rather. Here is a sample, from an advance copy:

XXVI SHEET OF ASH

"Which way is the river?" I ask as I stumble
where the ground rises and
another curb falls.
A new voice answers, "This way."
I trust the voice but wonder:
"How does he know?
What can he see that I cannot?"
I walk as if inside a pillow,
in the muffled silence
that follows the tower's collapse....


Press Release

BIKEMAN

THAT FOREVER SEPTEMBER MORNING

Bikeman (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $12.99) offers author Thomas F. Flynn's account, as an epic poem, of his own experience as he set off on his bike toward the World Trade Center towers and experienced the horror and devastation firsthand. Written with the detail and immediacy of a seasoned journalist and the eloquence and compassion of a poet, Bikeman is a deeply moving recollection of a haunting day that will live forever in our collective memory.

Flynn notes that although much has been said and written about the events of that day, the focus has been primarily on the 9/12 world — the consequences and repercussions, or the causes and logistics. He believes, however, that we as a country are finally ready to transcend that detached examination, and to focus honestly and emotionally on the day itself — the feelings it evoked, and the shared humanity of the experience. Written in a searing free verse that imposes discipline on raw emotion without denying its intensity, Bikeman is everyone's story, because, as Flynn reflects, "everyone shared in that moment and that pain and that hurt. It is all our history." Indeed, Bikeman articulates what many have asked in the wake of that day: "How do we continue to live our lives after this?" He voices this fear and uncertainty, candidly considering:

... Will the blue skies and sun-frolicked waters
I left this morning be the same again?....
Will joy still exist?....
What will I feel?
Who will I be, when I regain my life?

He delves deeper, recounting the immense pain and suffering that he witnessed. Although he initially resists emotion, trying to remain an observant recorder, he inevitably surrenders:

I am an unprotected wound, sliced
with the hurt, the sting, the pain
of others. Is that a tear? Yes.
I hear the cries in the dusty air,
I hear cries echoing in the ruins.
I hear cries and I weep, without control, without shame.

The vivid, urgent detail of all that surrounded the events of the day, affecting every sense — sight, sound, touch, taste, smell — is compelling. The grief and horror described are palpable. As a witness, Flynn is filled with confusion and doubt, yet a subsequent feeling of unity (and inherently, hope) emerges. The shared experience forged a unity that cannot be denied:

I feel a community with all of them,
and they with me. Those I look at,
look back at me, mute and solemn
with an openness with a welcoming
I had not known before in this city.
As if to say, we are one now,
We must look out for each other,
Care for each other...

Bikeman is our messenger, as well as the "forever companion" of the dead. Teeming with powerful emotion, this beautifully written poem provides the foundation for an honest and provocative reflection of that forever September morning that will continue to remain in our communal consciousness and hearts.

Buy Button

BIKEMAN, AN EPIC POEM

By: Thomas F. Flynn
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC
ISBN: 978-0-7407-7559-8
Format: Hardcover | 7 x 9 in. | 96 pages
Price: $12.99 ($14.50 Canada)

Publicity contact: Kathy Hilliard, 816-932-6741, khilliard@amuniversal.com

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