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.”1 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.2 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 on aerial navigation, Stick and Rudder. Young William was in the cockpit early, and undertook his first solo flight at the age of fourteen. He also wrote his own book on flight, Inside the Sky (Pantheon, 1998), in which he let it be known that he attained a level of fearlessness and clearheadedness that most of us could not hope to approach.

Langewiesche has published long articles about the conditions of war and about the way men deal with destruction on a vast scale; he wrote, for example, on the US-led peacekeeping effort in Bosnia and on a port city in India where he delved into the practice of ship-breaking—that is, cutting apart decommissioned ships in order to sell the scrap metal. His writing is not political, at least not in a direct way, but it reveals a clear sympathy for the doers, the men who make things happen, and little or none for those who place themselves in the doers’ way: Langewiesche makes clear his distaste for bureaucracy and expresses a muted though still-clear animus toward meddlers, such as the woman from Greenpeace in the ship-breaking article whose insistence that India meet the same environmental standards as obtain in the West strikes Langewiesche as being out of touch with the fact that the poor of India need the work.

In lower Manhattan, where after the attack police numbered in the thousands and movements were regulated and monitored as perhaps never before on American soil, Langewiesche somehow or other talked his way past a National Guard checkpoint (“I’m used to doing things like that,” the author casually explains3 ). He learned that the cleanup was being overseen by a little-known agency of the city government called the Department of Design and Construction, which has oversight on all city construction contracts but which City Hall put in charge of overseeing the cleanup because its commissioner, Kenneth Holden, had responded to the attacks with an energy and imagination that other department heads did not have. When Langewiesche contacted him, he discovered that Holden was an Atlantic subscriber and had been impressed by Langewiesche’s articles.


Mayor Giuliani and other officials had little enthusiasm for letting the press near the site.4 Journalists could not get close to the site itself except occasionally and for brief moments, and no reporter or news organization was to be given official access. Holden, however, pressed the mayor’s office to allow Langewiesche to tell the story of the cleanup, and City Hall gave its approval, perhaps mindful of the historical moment, perhaps sensing one more opportunity for Giuliani to be commemorated (this did not happen; Giuliani is rarely a presence in American Ground). So there he was: the only journalist given full access to the site. He was able to mix with the firemen and cops and construction workers virtually as one of them, especially since he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of hanging a media credential around his neck.

If Langewiesche didn’t know, at that point, where his reporting would take him, he knew what above all else he wanted to avoid. Last summer, when his first article appeared in The Atlantic, he put it this way:

I think it’s been very difficult for a lot of writers to observe clearly what was going on, because of the emotional shock of the attack. But probably for reasons of personality and because of my own personal experiences out in the world, I felt a little bit less of that than many other writers. I was never overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness or tragedy. War, violent death, and decayed bodies are not new things to me…. Maybe I’m too used to that kind of thing, but I think that America is not used to it enough, and that maybe that caused some of the lack of ability to move past the extreme emotionalism.5

(One senses a touch, or perhaps more than a touch, of arrogance in this passage: we are to be grateful to, even humbled by, our battle-scarred, clear-eyed correspondent.)

In American Ground’s opening pages, Langewiesche rejects the clichéd description of ground zero as a war zone:

After years of traveling through the back corners of the world, I had an unexpected sense not of the strangeness of this scene but of its familiarity…. It was as if I had wandered again into the special havoc that failing societies tend to visit upon themselves. This time they had visited it upon us.

Unlike much of the writing about ground zero, there is a freshness of perspective in those sentences, owing largely to Langewiesche’s determination to approach September 11 not as the one great cataclysm of American history but as just another part, albeit a big one, of the long history of human struggle, and of man’s attempt to impose order on disorder. His love of flight, he explains in Inside the Sky, comes from the way in which the long view clarifies human events:

The world beneath our wings has become a human artifact, our most spontaneous and complex creation…. It lets us see ourselves in context, as creatures struggling through life on the face of a planet, not separate from nature, but its most expressive agents. It lets us see that our struggles form patterns on the land, that these patterns repeat to an extent which before we had not known, and that there is a sense to them.

Early on in American Ground, he finds for himself “a piece of high ground” inside the forty-story, bombed-out Bankers Trust building across the street, from which he can observe the cleanup. He does not, of course, remain there, and some of the most gripping passages of American Ground have him getting on, around, and, especially, under the site. But there is a quality to his tone—detached and flatly unemotional—that at times makes it sound as though he prefers the higher view.


American Ground consists of three long chapters. It is organized not chronologically, but thematically, although it is not immediately clear in every case what precisely the themes are. Chapter One, “The Inner World,” takes us to the site’s underground and into the makeshift command center that was strictly off-limits to other reporters. The second section is called “The Rush to Recover,” but it begins as the airplanes fly toward lower Manhattan over the Hudson Valley. It is not a part of a “rush to recover,” since by definition recovering from something means that the something has to have happened in the first place. But given Langewiesche’s history as an aviator and the sure-footedness of the prose and its narrative authority, it is a permissible, and powerful, digression. The passage in which he imagines what the final moments on board the two planes that struck the towers might have been like—how the suicide pilots turned off course and timed their approaches precisely—benefits from his deep knowledge of aviation and is among the book’s best moments.


American Ground is an engineering story. Although there is a supporting cast of a few construction chiefs and firemen, most of the book’s heroes are engineers. The tale is told chiefly from their perspective. Holden, the head of the DDC, is at the center of the narrative, a “shrewd and intellectually sophisticated commissioner” who was “not a political operative in the conventional sense but a professional bureaucrat selected for command because of his willingness to stay in the shadows and accomplish routine but essential work.” His top lieutenant at the DDC, Michael Burton, had earned engineering and MBA degrees “from colleges in the Bronx and was aggressively climbing the ladder of social and material success.” He was also “the DDC’s doer.”

There are also Peter Rinaldi, who spent twenty-eight years working in the North Tower as an engineer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that owns the land beneath the Trade Center; his boss, Frank Lombardi, the Port Authority’s chief engineer, who had survived both September 11 and the terrorist bombing of 1993; Richard Tomasetti, the site’s principal structural engineer; and George Tamaro, an “underground specialist” who had helped to oversee the construction of the Trade Center’s “slurry wall,” the mammoth, seventy-foot-deep retaining wall within which the towers were raised.

The stories of these men, and four or five others, form the core of American Ground. We learn where they were when the towers were hit; how they rushed to the scene, or survived the attack if they were already there; how they came together in this obviously unprecedented situation and began to assert some degree of control over the chaos and death around them. Langewiesche follows them as they descend to a destroyed PATH commuter-rail station to survey the damage and weigh the various dangers—collapsing debris, threats of floods or spreading fires—they were forced to confront. He sits with them inside their command post, the abandoned cafeteria of PS 89, two blocks north of the site, where “all that counted about anyone was what that person could provide now.”

The recurring theme is their ingenuity, and it is not surprising, given Langewiesche’s interests, that American Ground is at its best when it describes the improvisations that had to be made, as in his account of a search party that descends into the bowels of the wreckage to inspect huge underground tanks of the refrigerant gas freon. The center’s air-conditioning housing had been placed down there, and not on top of the building as is usually the case, because even towers as massive as these could not have supported the weight of freon chambers of the size that was needed to cool ten million square feet of office space.

After the towers’ collapse, the chambers were buried under tons of tightly compacted rubble. And so, after two months, when a path had finally been cleared to the “chiller plant”—three stories high, seven refrigeration units, each “the size of a locomotive” and capable of holding up to 24,000 pounds of highly explosive gas—a crew of twenty, including the author, set out to find it. The risk was that it was not known whether the tanks still contained the gas. If they did, and one or more tanks were somehow punctured by excavation equipment—entirely possible since their precise location could not be known—then the equivalent of World War I mustard gas could spread across the site and hover over lower Manhattan. It turned out that the tanks had been punctured in the collapse, and the freon had long since dissipated; it didn’t spread over lower Manhattan, but the interest of the story for Langewiesche is the search itself—the ways the rules were followed, the ways they were broken, the elements of uncertainty and chance that existed on the site virtually every hour of every day.

Langewiesche’s characterizations of the men in charge of the cleanup can feel perfunctory, and indeed there is no single character in the book who is driven to heroic heights. But he is clearly absorbed in the story of their work on the site, while remaining dispassionate enough to be altogether convincing. He offers lengthy accounts of the feuding between the police and firefighters on the site—a scuffle broke out between the two forces on November 2, 2001, after the Giuliani administration ruled that the size of the cleanup crews be reduced from seventy-five to twenty-five. The mayor cited safety reasons, saying he was concerned that the larger crews increased the chance of further injury or death at the site, an edict that made the firefighters, in a rush to find the bodies of their lost “brothers,” furious.

This incident was widely reported in the newspapers at the time, and Langewiesche’s account doesn’t add much to what is known. He did, though, attend a brittle meeting between city officials, including the mayor, and deceased firefighters’ families that took place on November 12, which got no coverage at the time (in part, perhaps, because American Airlines Flight 587, en route from New York to the Dominican Republic, had crashed in Rockaway, Queens, the same day). The raucous “widows’ meeting,” as Langewiesche calls it, highlighted the different views and priorities of the engineers, who wanted to finish the job as quickly as possible, and the firefighters and their families, who wanted to move through the pile more carefully, sifting for remains. The work-crew size went back up to seventy-five. The engineers were forced into a moment’s reflection about their lack of emotionalism, but their hold on the cleanup’s reins was, if anything, strengthened. This tension, between what we might call (what he would call) the professionals and the emotionalists, is of interest to Langewiesche, and in this and other passages he brings such tensions to life.

Elsewhere, American Ground can wander languorously over an incident or cut off a dramatic scene too abruptly. Sustained depictions of the bickering among the construction firms assigned different tasks or sections of the cleanup seem, given the book’s short length and the seemingly limitless supply of anecdotes available to the only writer in the world allowed carte-blanche access to the zone, both bland (such arguments could take place at any demolition site) and otiose (why do we need to know this?). Other aspects of his story—the structural strengths and weaknesses of the towers, for example—received, like the cops–firemen feud, ample coverage in the newspapers. On this point, admittedly, the bar for the author is high, given the millions of words that have been written on the subject.

But Langewiesche saw what none of the rest of us saw, and at times his observations leave the reader eager for more detail. Where he does provide such detail—in describing the search for the freon tanks or the descent to the PATH station—the narrative is engrossing. Elsewhere, he glides hastily across material that would seem to have considerable dramatic potential. Press reports often mentioned, for example, the twenty (by Langewiesche’s count; sixteen or eighteen, according to news reports) refrigerated trailers in upper Manhattan that contained unidentified body parts, tagged, inspected, and checked for DNA matches. Newspaper accounts that I came across make it clear that journalists tried to get inside this facility but could not.

Langewiesche suggests that he did, but he tells us very little about it, other than that he stood inside it and had a lengthy conversation with a medical examiner. He recounts the conversation but tells us nothing about a place that only he, among civilians, has seen. What did it look like? How did it smell? Were these refrigerators, too, “the size of locomotives,” or were they the size of household Amanas? Did family members of victims ever visit it? What unfortunate clerks were charged with the duty of tagging these remains, and how, by the way, were they sleeping at night? Langewiesche, quite literally, could have told us everything he did about the Dead House, as it was called, by having seen it from an airplane.

There seem two possible explanations for this incuriosity on the author’s part. The first is that he considered the recounting too grisly for public consumption. But this would appear to be unlikely in view of his description of himself as a Hemingwayesque adventurer to whom war, violent death, and decayed bodies are “not new things,” and who believes of such carnage that America “is not used to it enough.” It is more likely that Langewiesche’s curiosity is more a scientist’s curiosity than a journalist’s. For material to engage Langewiesche fully, there needs to be at its core an intellectual problem that interests him: the disposal of scrap metal in India raises broad questions about the relationship of the first world to the third; the effort to clean up ground zero pits nobler creatures—men of knowledge and judgment, such as those who run the New York City Department of Design and Construction—against those lesser beings who would thwart them (emotional family members, clannish cops and firefighters). His primary search is for the narrative structure that will permit reflection. But a morgue is just a morgue.

This, then, may be the ultimate source of the author’s antisentimentalism. It’s not so much that he writes in determined opposition to emotionalism as that he writes around it. It is of no interest; it is fat to be rendered off. Needless to say, this is not how everyone feels about ground zero.


It doesn’t take Langewiesche long—page 16, to be precise—to take up discussion of the one ground zero–related subject that, in the New York press, had been strictly taboo. I know, from friends at the dailies, that the newspapers were aware of this matter, and one can assume that the local television stations knew the story too. But no one would tell it. At first Langewiesche breaks the taboo somewhat gently, in the passive voice, alleging that police, firefighters, and construction workers at the site “were at various times implicated in a widespread pattern of looting that started even before the towers fell, and was to peak around Christmas….”

Langewiesche raises this particular l-word at four or five points in American Ground. It should be said that he is mostly matter-of-fact about it; after all, if the subject matter is how men improvise their struggles, well, snatching a gold chain here or some clothes there6 was surely a predictable and even understandable part of that improvisation, for men involved in the duress of cleaning up ground zero. Understandable, too, is the notion that firefighters, who had immediately been declared the great heroes of September 11 and who lost a staggering 343 men, should be in a greater rush to find their fallen comrades than to find civilians, as the police charged; and that firefighters might linger over the bodies of their fellow workers just a bit more than over any others. Langewiesche describes such scenes, though he is anything but sensationalistic about them:

The image of “heroes” seeped through their ranks like a low-grade narcotic. It did not intoxicate them, but it skewed their view…. The firemen seemed to become steadily more self-absorbed and isolated from the larger cleanup efforts under way.

The mere breaking of the taboo, though, has caused a small uproar. Langewiesche certainly has his defenders, who argue that his lack of sentimentality and his sober willingness to be frank about what happened on “the pile” is a signal virtue of his book.7 But critics tend to be more persistent than supporters, and no critic of Langewiesche has been more determined to discredit him than Rhonda Roland Shearer, the Marcel Duchamp scholar and widow of Stephen Jay Gould. Shearer, who spent months on the site as a volunteer and disagreed with Langewiesche about the incidence of looting, was enraged. She set up a Web site, the World Trade Center Living History Project (www.wtclivinghistory.org), which is devoted to attacking Langewiesche, and which is (still) continually posting new ammunition. Visitors may review a lengthy compendium of “corrections” to Lange- wiesche’s “errors.” They will be invited to click on headlines like the following: “Fellow Journalists Question Langewiesche’s Ethics and Methods!” “Langewiesche Back-Peddles [sic] and Now Blames Union Construction Workers for His Words!” They will be advised of an “update” consisting of photos reportedly (it’s hard to tell) showing firefighters draping an American flag over the body of a civilian, contradicting a comparison Langewiesche makes at one point of the “elaborate flag-draped ceremonials that the firemen accorded their own dead” as opposed to the “jaded ‘bag ’em and tag ’em’ approach that they took to civilians.”

The intensity of scrutiny would be difficult for any writer to withstand, and some of the accusations against Langewiesche are a bit skewed. One of Langewiesche’s “errors,” for example, is his use of the word “tribalism” to describe the competitions that arose between cops and firemen on the pile. Since the two groups did come to blows in November when the firefighters launched their protest against the reduction of the size of the work crews, “tribalism” scarcely seems to overstate the case, and in any event its use is an editorial judgment, not an error. The source of the anger here, of course, is that Langewiesche had the impertinence to depart from the script. To this constituency, anything other than tales of gallantry—which are rife in any number of books on fire-department heroism that have been published since the attack—constitutes an attempt to discredit the firefighters.

Nevertheless, in all the invective, one point is worth salvaging. Some of the Web site’s criticisms of Langewiesche are not hysterical. American Ground gives us a considerable amount of information about the coterie of engineers at its story’s heart; we learn, for example, that Ken Holden “could finish The New York Times crossword puzzle in five minutes flat.” But firefighters and police officers are hardly present in the book. This is an odd omission—these were the men, after all, who did much of the grunt work at the site, and it seems difficult to believe that few of them had an interesting thing to say. One FDNY official, a collapsed-building specialist named Sam Melisi, is a recurring presence in the book, one of the few men from the uniformed services whom Langewiesche evidently took a liking to (“a small and painfully modest Staten Islander”). Beyond that, few rank-and-file firefighters or police officers, either from the NYPD or from the police force of the Port Authority, are quoted in the book. Occasionally, as when Langewiesche recounts the November 2 melee, there is a “blind” quote here or there, usually of something shouted or overheard. But the cops and firemen who worked at ground zero emerge from American Ground almost completely without identity (similarly, their wives, at the “widows’ meeting,” are nameless; they’re simply called widows, women, usually emotional and shouting). It seems unlikely that the explanation resides in their reticence—they’ve been quoted and profiled for books and for newspapers, magazines, and television networks all over the world. It seems likely that Langewiesche just wasn’t very interested. As a result, a fairly important piece of the story of the cleanup is missing from American Ground.

Moreover, some of those journalistic rebuttals to Langewiesche seem reasonable. Langewiesche’s harshest implication about looting concerns the excavation of a fire truck that was loaded down with jeans—stacked according to size—from the Gap store in the Trade Center mall. Langewiesche writes that the way this truck was found made it “hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell.” While he stops short of leveling a charge outright, his clear suggestion is that these firefighters, with helpless people all around them screaming and desperately trying to flee, ignored their life-saving duties and instead made off with “dozens of pairs” of blue jeans. This is a tough insinuation, and one need not be a fire-department sentimentalist to find it so.

Is the jeans story true? Writing in the New York Daily News last November,8 and writing with, it must be said, the clear intention of defending the Fire Department and discrediting Langewiesche, columnist Michael Daly tells the story very differently. Where Langewiesche had not identified the crew in the book, Daly identifies the men as being from Ladder 4. To him, they were killed doing their job: their bodies were found clustered together, along with the remains of a civilian woman and a “jaws of life” tool—the large mouth-like instrument that is used to rescue people who are pinned between heavy objects. The jeans—from Structure, not the Gap, and arrayed haphazardly rather than neatly—were blown into the truck from a nearby store. Langewiesche, Daly writes, “would have us believe these firefighters parked their rig as close as possible to the command post, walked to a Gap store 300 yards away, trudged back with armloads of jeans past hundreds of injured civilians, and risked death from falling debris to stash their loot within clear view of their supervisors.” Langewiesche did not respond to Daly’s request for comment. When asked about the incident by an American Journalism Review reporter, an Atlantic editor acknowledged that the content of the anecdote was not checked for facts, but only to verify “that this story was circulating.”9

Langewiesche relays the anecdote largely through the eyes of a construction crew chief, unnamed, whose animus toward the firemen had reached a boiling point and who was delighted to unearth this apparent evidence of misconduct on the firefighters’ part. Langewiesche does cite a fire chief’s interpretation that the jeans had been blown into the truck’s crew cab, but he gives readers no sign that he made any effort to get an official reaction or explanation from the department. (Daly notes that several witnesses dispute Langewiesche’s account, and a Fire Department official, Ronald Spadafora, claims to have videotapes supporting Daly’s version.) And just lately, George Black, an independent journalist and author who spent months researching the matter, has come forward with a fifty-page document—footnoted, with maps and satellite photographs—demonstrating, Black says, that the story couldn’t possibly have been true as Langewiesche wrote it. Black’s conclusions received a lengthy and respectful piece in The New York Times.10 Pressed for comment by the paper’s reporter, Langewiesche—one can duck the Daily News on such matters, evidently, but not the Times—said that the people who told him the story “had shown themselves to be people without any agenda,” a claim that is demonstrably the opposite of what he wrote in the book.

I suspect that, from the author’s point of view, the exact truth of the story is not the main point. For Langewiesche, the question of whether looting went on is, I think, almost a minor one perhaps not worth dwelling on. Such concerns aren’t quite worthy of the cultural geographer surveying the landscape. American Ground demonstrates that the view from up there is useful in many respects. It has allowed Langewiesche to remove the events of September 11 from their sentimental and harrowing contexts and turn it into a story in which tragedy yields to ingenuity and triumph. It also shows that, inevitably, a few things get lost.

This Issue

May 1, 2003