For a while—at least a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center—it was impossible to resist the rush of dispatches from what was immediately given the name “ground zero.” Article after article extolled the bravery of this firehouse or that cop. Spare, touching biographies of the lost and deceased—the Little League coaches and church deaconesses and obsessed Giants fans—began appearing in The New York Times, which later collected them under the rubric “Portraits of Grief.” Paeans to the excellent behavior of Rudy Giuliani were echoed again and again. Much of the coverage was, for a while, deeply affecting. But in due course the surfeit of pathos began to produce in many readers or viewers exactly the opposite of the intended effect. Just as the footage of the towers’ collapse seen for the thousandth time ceased to shock, so too did the thousandth tale of the heroics of the firehouse or of the nobility of Mayor Giuliani begin to pall. So much ground zero reportage came to sound less like journalism and more like an extended therapy session.
Good journalists understood, from the start, that mawkishness can be undone by facts. Jim Dwyer, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, turned out consistently superior, detailed, and restrained reports about ground zero for The New York Times. The most memorable, for me, involved six men who worked in 1 World Trade Center and were trapped in a fiftieth-floor elevator together. One of them, a Polish immigrant named Jan Demczur who worked as a window-washer in the tower, engineered their escape by using his squeegee to pry the doors open and cut a hole in the Sheetrock that faced them. They climbed through it and raced down a smoke-filled stairwell, reaching street level with about five minutes to spare before the building fell. The article was eight hundred words long. In it the pathos was treated as a given, surrounding the details of the story like oxygen.
But Dwyer was one of the exceptions, and by the time William Langewiesche’s reporting from the World Trade Center site was published, originally as a three-part series in The Atlantic Monthly that first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue and later in book form as American Ground, it was clearly time for a cool, detached assessment, one more worthy of the complexity of the event. Among American journalists, Langewiesche seemed the perfect man to write it. As an Atlantic correspondent and the author of many books, he has been drawn to writing about the grand ambitions of men and the largeness of the tasks they set for themselves—and tasks don’t come much larger than removing 1.5 million tons of compacted rubble intermingled with thousands of bodies and body parts.
Moreover, Langewiesche is a pilot himself, a fact not without relevance to a tragedy that began aboard commercial airliners. His father, Wolfgang, was a pilot before him and in 1944 had written a classic text …