Within hours of the attacks on September 11, professional pilot-turned-Atlantic correspondent William Langewiesche was on the phone with The Atlantic's top editors, discussing how he might cover the story within the magazine's pages. Should he go to New York? Washington? Afghanistan? After weighing the alternatives, it was agreed that he should get himself to the World Trade Center site as quickly as possible.
When he arrived a few days later, he found that access to the site was barred to visitors, and that the lines for limited-access press passes were long and slow. In any case, limited access was not what he was looking for. A few interviews and an occasional glimpse at how the cleanup was progressing wouldn't make for the kind of in-depth story that he hoped to write. Just as he was starting to reconsider his decision not to go to Afghanistan, he received a phone call from Kenneth Holden, the city official heading up the cleanup effort. It turned out that Holden, to whom Langewiesche had faxed an inquiry about obtaining fuller access, was an avid reader of The Atlantic Monthly and a fan of Langewiesche's writing in particular (he had bought and read Langewiesche's books). He enthusiastically offered Langewiesche full access not only to the site itself, but also to any and all meetings and files pertaining to the cleanup.
Langewiesche took thorough advantage of Holden's offer, putting in eighteen-hour days at the site for many months, spending time with engineers, construction workers, police officers, firefighters, forensics experts, city managers, and anyone else who played a significant role in the cleanup. He followed the investigations into what transpired in the air as the two planes headed toward the towers and how and why the buildings collapsed. He sat in on meetings, explored the subterranean ruins with search teams, observed how bodies were dealt with, rode barges carrying away debris, and visited the landfill where final searches were conducted for human remains.
The result is "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," a comprehensive look at the inner workings of the World Trade Center cleanup effort—and the longest piece of original reporting The Atlantic has ever published. In contrast to many journalists' depictions of the cleanup as essentially a mournful and tragic task, in Langewiesche's telling it also represents a shining moment for America—an example of American ingenuity at work, as engineers, city workers, construction workers, doctors, firefighters, police, and others threw themselves into the chaotic but productive effort of helping their country recover from a serious blow.
William Langewiesche is the author of Inside the Sky : A Meditation on Flight (1998), Sahara Unveiled : A Journey Across the Desert (1996), and Cutting for Sign (1993). His November 2001 Atlantic cover story "The Crash of EgyptAir 990" won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.
He spoke with me by telephone from California.
"American Ground" will be published in book form by North Point Press (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux) in October.
Part one of "American Ground" is available in the print edition of the July/August 2002 issue; excerpts are available online.
There's been so much said and written about September 11 over the past nine months. In what ways is "American Ground" distinctive?
For unusual reasons I got exclusive access to the World Trade Center site. It was a very private world that was not visited by other writers in any serious way. Other journalists, reporters, and television people would come through, spend a few hours, and then be escorted out. But in order to penetrate the real story of what was happening there, you had to be there the whole time—you had to live inside of it so you could gauge its moods, see through the hype, and understand the internal politics of the place. Journalists on the outside just had no way to do that.
Another way that this piece is different is that the perspective and the voice are more frank—more honest, really, than most of the coverage has been. 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, so in many ways what happened with the WTC seemed kind of familiar. 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.
Looking at the situation frankly, I found it was less tragic, in a way, than it was being presented. What I saw was kind of a celebration of American culture and society; a story about optimism, technical competence, and wealth—the ability to spend money on this enormous project of recovery, and to do it fast. It was a story about many positive, vital aspects of the United States today. But to get to that story you had to move beyond the trauma of the fact that 3,000 people died.
How did you manage to get access to the site?
The morning the buildings came down, Mike Kelly and Cullen Murphy (The Atlantic's editor in chief and managing editor) and I discussed how the magazine should react. And we decided several things. One, that the EgyptAir piece, which was almost done (and which was in a way an interesting reflection on the September 11 attack), should be rushed to completion, which we did. Second, as soon as the airlines started flying, I should go to New York and take a look at whether the cleanup and recovery effort would be an interesting story. The alternative was to go to Afghanistan. Mike was encouraging me to consider that. I was on the verge of jumping onto an airplane and getting over to Pakistan and finding my way to the Northern Alliance. But we felt that the disadvantage of that idea was that it was going to be more of a daily-newspaper kind of story rather than the kind of in-depth reporting opportunity that The Atlantic thrives on. So I went to New York as soon as the airlines started flying, and I visited the site.
I talked my way past the National Guard at a checkpoint (I'm used to doing things like that), and I surveyed the situation. It was extremely chaotic, and it was clear to me that most of the efforts underway at the time were ineffectual. The bucket brigades weren't getting the job done, because the debris was extraordinarily compact and heavy. You couldn't get at it with your bare hands or with hand tools; you needed heavy equipment. So the question was, Who was going to be bringing the equipment in? I started asking about it, and I got word that there was this outfit called the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC) and that this guy, Kenneth Holden, was the commissioner of it. So I fired off two faxes. One went to the Office of Emergency Management, which was the nominal agency in charge of the site (I never heard anything back). The other went to the guy with the heavy equipment—Kenneth Holden at the DDC.