American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center
(North Point Press, 2002)
We made it. It’s been just over a year since last September and we’ve seen the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks come and go. Over the past year just about anyone with some form of media access has weighed in with their take on the situation: the saber-rattlers and the pacifists, the conspiracy theorists and the theologians, the politicians and the entertainment industry, the first-hand reporters and the far-away academics. Sadly, little that has been written or spoken has caught the American imagination in any lasting way.
Maybe it’s a symptom of our media-saturated times that all the howling pundits have effectively managed to cancel each other out. Maybe we’ve become too cynical (yes, it does still exist in a post-9/11 world.) Maybe we just live in an uninspired age. On the day of the anniversary, when we needed inspiration most, politicians, perhaps due to election-year jitters or perhaps owing to utter lack of imagination, read to us from the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, and Roosevelt’s Four Points speech—providing cold comfort through old words written for past generations about to embark on their own historic missions. It was an odd rerun of the greatest hits in American conflict—well meaning to be sure, but safe and uncommitted to any grand idea that hasn’t already shown itself to be a winner.
While a sizable chunk of the books written over the past year concerning the 9/11 attacks are destined for publishing obscurity, the law of averages is on the side of there being a few standouts. One that almost certainly will be is William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. First serialized this past summer, it stands as the longest piece of reporting The Atlantic has ever published and has now been reprinted in book form. If you’re the betting type, lay a couple bucks down on this book showing up on the Pulitzer and National Book Critic Award short lists, as it’s a stirring account of the engineers, mid-level city government officials and workers who had to shoulder the unprecedented responsibility of managing the recovery and cleanup efforts in New York following the attacks.
Although the press was largely denied access to Ground Zero, Kenneth Holden, the city official heading up the cleanup effort and a fan of The Atlantic, offered Langewiesche, an Atlantic correspondent, almost unrestricted access to the site and to the planning meetings that regularly took place, resulting in a book that manages to explain the intricacies of perhaps the most hurried and scrutinized engineering project ever undertaken. Although Holden’s motivations for this may look a bit suspect to the cynics among us, his decision nonetheless yields a unique perspective on the self-contained netherworld that was Ground Zero.
In his harrowing yet stunningly sober account of the cleanup effort, Langewiesche is able to put a human face on the tragedy without resorting to overt sentimentality or hand-wringing. American Ground takes place in a world all its own, completely cut off from the realm of overheated public debate and political posturing that swept the nation after the attacks. The men on “the pile,” as they called it, had no time for any grandstanding. Their job was to clear 1.5 million tons of metal and steel from the site while being careful to sift out any possible human remains that might have survived the collapse.
Amidst the detritus of mass murder, the engineering teams navigated the complex politics of the site, most famously involving the infighting and actual physical confrontations between the NYPD and NYFD. The workers’ day to day reality revolved around the pile’s constant shifting and burning below their feet while the underground slurry wall that served as the anchor for the site threatened to slide into a murderous sinkhole of steel, heavy machinery, and concrete. Langewiesche’s book is a true original, as there is hardly a sentence that doesn’t illuminate some aspect of the cleanup and recovery heretofore unknown outside the small circle of government officials and private contractors involved.
On the morning of the attacks, an obscure city department called the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), which had been created in 1996 by then-Mayor Giuliani to oversee the repair of sidewalks, sewers, and municipal infrastructure, rose up to take the lead in the cleanup effort. This was as big a surprise to Kenneth Holden, the head of the department, and his lieutenant, Michael Burton, the men who would direct much of the cleanup, as it was to everyone else. They simply happened to be near City Hall that morning for a meeting, and not being able to find anyone else willing to begin sorting things out, they took it upon themselves to start arranging for the transport of lights, machinery, and men down to the site by time darkness fell on the first night.
Holden and Burton would continue to head the project until the very end, much of the time coordinating the efforts from a hastily slapped together command center in a kindergarten classroom at P.S. 89, just a few blocks away. According to Langewiesche’s account, this “chaotic, free-for-all nature of the emergency response…was also its genius and strength.” Things had to get done, and if that meant some creative freelancing by the construction companies, so be it. The workers were given the responsibility, and rose to the occasion.
Langewiesche himself got involved in some of the engineering expeditions into the center of the pile, once navigating the subterranean caverns below the surface to check the integrity of Freon tanks thought to be dangerously close to exploding, potentially sickening or killing people for blocks around. On his trek through the subterranean labyrinth below the city he found that “The ruins…were closing in oppressively, with crazily angled slabs tilting down into the waters ahead amid a confusion of rubble slopes that obscured the blackness beyond…the place looked like a trap, and dangerous as hell…blocks of concrete the size of cars hung over our heads, one dangling on rebar.”
Langewiesche’s work benefits enormously, and in fact is built upon, the author’s cool tone and penchant for detail—he manages to distill the complex engineering realities of the buildings and their fall into an intensely readable and compelling narrative. And, although we all know the gruesome details of what happened that morning, he manages time and again to dig just below the surface. He recreates the minute the towers fell by interspersing the stories of the men who built them, maintained them, and then had to pick up the pieces.
The focus of the book is so tight that little mention is made of the terrorists who visited the nightmare upon the city, and Guiliani is simply a phantom character mentioned in passing when speaking of the careers of the engineers who worked at the site. One wonders if this is due to Langewiesche’s obvious affection for the engineers and lack of access to the former mayor, or if Giuliani actually operated more as a front man for the operation than the public was lead to believe. There is some serious mythmaking here to be sure, as Langewiesche pushes his thesis that the site “was a turbulent and quarrelsome place, it was also courageous and creative, an authentic piece of American ground.” In other words, the work at Ground Zero was the most traditionally American of endeavors—manly, improvisational and democratic to the core—a place where a good idea and a penchant for self-sacrifice created a true, brute meritocracy.
Langewiesche pulls few punches, especially concerning the recklessness and bereaved arrogance the NYFD showed in trying to stall the cleanup until they recovered all of their lost. While their grief was undoubtedly real, the author deflates the myth that has sprung up around them over the past year. In this telling, they are simply blue-collar men, brave, flawed, confused, and struggling under the enormity of the situation. He exposes the fact that the firemen quickly became resented at the site for the importance they placed on the remains of their own, while at times seeming to care little about the remains of others. This led to several physical confrontations between them and the NYPD, even though in reality “The dead were dead now and didn’t care. And it was absurd for the living to group and rank them.”
To his credit, Langewiesche also treads lightly over the plight of the firemen and cops’ wives, recalling a meeting between them and city officials where the women took their rage out on the city coroner and Holden, drowning their comments out in chants of “liar!” when the men tried to explain that they simply cannot take the time necessary to find all the remains that might have survived the collapse. Both sides are presented thoughtfully, but Langewiecsche will likely take some heat for his muted criticism of the widows’ constant demands for more money and an unlimited window of time to search for remains.
Populated with surprising moments of beauty—such as his descriptions of the first snowfall of the season that blanketed the site, or of watching the remains of the towers be buried under earth at Fresh Kills or loaded onto freighters bound for Asia (so the steel could be melted and recast)—Langewiesche’s American Ground dispenses with the now-familiar hysterical accounts of heroism and loss in favor of a deeply original, and deeply felt tale of American perseverance and sacrifice. Like the architects of our democratic experiment itself, the men who unbuilt the towers worked without backup plan or blueprint, taking charge where needed, and letting the process work itself out where order simply could not be imposed.
PAUL MCLEARY has written for Social Policy magazine and the New York Observer.