By Daniel Fierman
Updated March 27, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

More than six months after the attacks on New York City, tourists wait hours to see Ground Zero. Thirty-nine million TV viewers tune in to watch CBS’ heartbreaking inside-the-towers footage from Jules and Gedeon Naudet. Publishers churn out books about bin Laden and bioterrorism. There seem to be many who think of the horror in downtown Manhattan not as a moment in history or a haunting memory, but as something tangible: an object to be picked up, turned over, and probed. As if with enough effort and exploration, the destruction will somehow make sense.

In his plainspoken account of the disaster, Dennis Smith shows us why this is impossible. A retired firefighter, honorary assistant chief, and author of 10 books — including the renowned Report From Engine Co. 82, about the burn-baby- burn years in the South Bronx — he’s in a position to know. In fact, if anyone understands just how unknowable the attacks of Sept. 11 actually are, it’s him.

Shortly after the first plane hit the towers, the 61-year-old Smith — who retired from the force in 1981 — threw on an Engine Co. 82 T-shirt, an FDNY sweatshirt, jeans, and heavy black hiking shoes. By 9:45 a.m., he was on his way to the site. He stayed there for the next two months, surveying the damage, talking to friends, accounting for the lost, and gathering stories. The result is Report From Ground Zero, a collection of interviews, on-the-rubble observations, and laments for fallen colleagues.

For most of the book Smith, a loose, natural storyteller, has the good sense to just get out of the way and let the first responders and their families speak for themselves. Minus the occasional introduction or personal interjection, the first half is a series of oral histories and micro-biographies. A trapped police officer watches his good friend die. Torn paper litters the streets, mimicking the soft give of earth. Father Mychal Judge quivers in prayer in the lobby of Tower 1 just before dying. Police officers, ironworkers, firefighters, and cadaver dogs pick through a hellish garden of steel, glass, and acrid smoke. A brother retrieves a lost officer’s kitten, who had been stranded for a day. A doomed John Perry files his retirement papers at police headquarters moments before rushing to the site of the disaster.

All of it is hard to read. In fact, ”Report” may be the slowest ”fast read” in history. No matter how well told, insightful, or compelling the stories are — and almost to a one, they fit that description — the book demands breaks. You’ll want to go for a walk, or maybe even get a stiff drink.

The emotional intensity ratchets down at midpoint. Titled ”Aftermath,” the second half of Smith’s book abandons the oral histories in favor of a rough, rambling diary kept by the author during the first 68 days at the site. Punctuated infrequently by interviews with survivors and widows, the book becomes almost entirely ruminative and observational. Some of it works: The inside look at the tenor of the recovery efforts, revealed in details like this bit of doggerel graffiti — If you’re brave/Come outta your cave/And we’ll put you in your grave/Mr. Bin Laden — is powerful. But some of it doesn’t: It’s unclear, for example, what readers are supposed to glean from Smith’s five-paragraph riff on the tragedy of recent Islamic history or his repeated endorsement of then-mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg.

Still, as a man who can walk with the city’s elite politicians and businessmen and its working-class firefighters, Smith stands almost alone. And he can write. Between the numbing stories of loss, the still-stunned author is capable of lines of eerie beauty: ”I see bodies in these shadows, whole bodies, full and recognizable…. I have also begun to see human figures in the definition of cracks in the sidewalk.”

As you read, it all comes rushing back. The terror. The lives that were lost. The personal, futile desire to help. The sense of interconnectedness we had with one another. All the vital experience that we have dialed down or jettisoned in the name of moving on. All the things, Smith says, that it would serve us best to remember.