9/11: “American Ground”

“The dread that Americans felt during the weeks following the September 11 attacks stemmed less from the fear of death than from a collective loss of control—a sense of being dragged headlong into an apocalyptic future for which society seemed unprepared.”

So opens the middle section of William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (2002). This is a book of such quiet authority that it should stand decades from now as the definitive account of what it was like at Ground Zero, just as John Hersey’s Hiroshima remains the story of that other ground zero.

Soon after 9/11, Langewiesche, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly (where the book originally appeared in three installments), made his way into the ruins of the World Trade Center where he would remain for months. His book, like September 11, 2001, is heartbreaking.

“American Ground:
World Trade Center”

And there is not a hint of melodrama in the book. American Ground is heartbreaking because Langewiesche’s reporting vividly reminds us of the lives lost in the collapse of the towers and the lives altered in the aftermath.

Langewiesche describes the physical collapse of the buildings with such care that the reader cannot but be reminded of the enormity of the crime that took place there. He uses enough detail so that his account does not shade into abstractions, and yet we never lose sight of the big picture. For example: “One of the many astonishments of that day is that the building was able to swallow an entire 767, and slow it from 590 mph to a stop in merely 209 feet.”

Much more of the book is about the deconstruction of the site and the people tasked with the job, many of whom had been part of its construction. Langewiesche writes of the risks the recovery crews took in searching for survivors: teams scrambled over unstable piles of dangerous, shifting debris and many did not wear their respirators in the very heavy smoke and dust that settled on the pile. Some thought this risky behavior was a manifestation of survivor guilt. Langewiesche himself thought “it looked like a simpler form of grief.”

But this “reckless self-abandonment” was also central to a culture that developed among those who worked the recovery effort, and much of the book is about the “expression of [this] creative and courageous impulse, linked to the need for action and improvisation, and part of the personal freedom that was unexpectedly emerging at the Trade Center site.”

Much of the work on the pile is weirdly inspiring. The tribalism that pitted firefighters committed to recovering their colleagues’ remains against construction crews tasked with cleaning up the site is not pretty, yet these are groups of people who were simply trying to do what they thought was right. There is a lot of emotion and impulsiveness on display on the pile, but it is usually in the context of selflessness and basic decency.

Usually, but not always. Langewiesche writes of the $250 million worth of gold and silver ingots belonging to the Bank of Nova Scotia that was sealed in their vault in the ruins of WTC Building Four. The doors had been locked before the guards evacuated, and rubble further protected the treasure. Yet when a pathway was finally cleared in late October, the recovery team discovered that two attempts had already been made to steal the precious metals. (The thieves were not able to break in the vault.)

At least those would-be thieves did not hinder the work at the site, something that cannot be said for the “the powerful and politically connected Bechtel Corporation, the San Francisco-based civil-engineering giant,” and its friends in Washington.

“Bechtel had gained backing within City Hall,” Langewiesche writes, “and had repeatedly and aggressively attempted to insert itself…as an additional (and costly) management layer between the [recovery authority] and the construction companies. This was widely seen at the Trade Center site as an intrusion so unnecessary that it could be understood only as the worst kind of opportunism.”

September 11, 2001 has come to signify a great many abstract notions but, five years later, what I remember are those very real people on the four airplanes and in the buildings that were hit, especially those two that were collapsed. To the victims in the latter, American Ground may be as fine a memorial as we will ever have on our bookshelves.