Shortly after the terrorist attacks against the United States last September, The Atlantic's longtime correspondent William Langewiesche made contact with officials in the New York City department responsible for the recovery and removal effort at the World Trade Center site. Langewiesche's request was straightforward: he wanted unfettered, round-the-clock physical access to the site; free access to supervisors and workers there; and access to the meetings of city officials, engineers, construction companies, and consultants.
Unexpectedly, this request was granted, immediately and in full. Langewiesche became the only journalist to be "embedded"—to use the Pentagon term for reporters who live and travel with the units they cover—in the World Trade Center operation. In all he spent nine months at the site. The result is "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," a three-part series that begins in this issue. It is the longest piece of original reporting ever undertaken by The Atlantic Monthly. Later this year the three articles commissioned by the magazine will be assembled into a book and published under the same title by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
William Langewiesche was granted such wholesale access for a simple reason: the people in charge were familiar with his work in these pages, work that has produced dramatic narratives built around human and technical complexity. During the more than ten years that Langewiesche has been a correspondent for The Atlantic, he has written about the U.S.-Mexican border, the ValuJet crash in Florida, the shipbreaking industry on the coast of India, and U.S. military operations in the Balkans, among other topics. Langewiesche has four times in the past been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and his cover story of last November, about the suicidal plunge of EgyptAir 990 into the Atlantic Ocean, won this year's award in the Reporting category. This month William Langewiesche joins James Fallows on our masthead as a national correspondent.
Langewiesche came to this magazine (with an article about the Sahara Desert) out of the clear blue sky; he had been a professional pilot, and had previously written primarily for aviation magazines. Several elements of that background—the bird's-eye perspective; the interest in details of technique and process; the calm demeanor; the canny assessment of human strengths and weaknesses; an appreciation of honesty not only as a virtue but also as a survival skill—proved to be natural assets in his new profession as a roving journalist. In his reporting for "American Ground," Langewiesche explored the shifting debris with construction workers and engineers, documenting the crises and questions as they arose. He crawled through "the pile" with survey parties and descended deep below street level to areas where underground fires still burned and steel flowed in molten streams. He interviewed hundreds of people, from ironworkers and city managers to architects and doctors. What he witnessed in his reporting, Langewiesche says, was "uniquely American improvisation on an enormous scale."
LANGEWIESCHE WAS ONE OF SEVEN Atlantic contributors to be honored at the 2002 National Magazine Awards. Caitlin Flanagan, who began contributing to the magazine only last year, was a finalist in the Reviews and Criticism category, for three review essays about books on college admissions, wedding planning, and tabloid newspapers. Flanagan lives in Los Angeles, and is now an Atlantic contributing editor. A group of three short stories—"The Hunter's Wife," by Anthony Doerr; "Digging," by Beth Lordan; and "Popular Girls," by Karen Shepard—was also a finalist, in the Fiction category.
Samantha Power won the National Magazine Award in the Public Interest category, for her Atlantic article "Bystanders to Genocide" (September 2001), which challenged the conventional wisdom that "nothing could have been done" to mitigate the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. At a minimum, Power argued, a combination of bureaucratic inertia and political cowardice in Washington cost tens of thousands of lives. Power's reporting for her Atlantic article has now become part of a book, "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, which was published in March.
And Penny Wolfson won the National Magazine Award in the Feature Writing category, for her article "Moonrise" (December 2001), which described the battle of her teenage son, Ansel, with muscular dystrophy. Ansel's physical condition, already immensely difficult, will of course only worsen. Wolfson portrayed her remarkable son, her family, and their common perseverance with honesty and restraint, and even with humor. Ansel is scheduled to start as a freshman at Columbia University this fall.