Excerpts From ‘American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center’

Part One: The Inner World

After nine months of unrivaled access to the disaster site, our correspondent tells the inside story of the recovery effort. This is the first installment in a three-part series.

For thirty years the Twin Towers had stood above the streets as all tall buildings do, as a bomb of sorts, a repository for the prodigious energy originally required to raise so much weight so high. Now, in a single morning, in twin ten-second pulses, the towers released that energy back into New York. Massive steel beams flew through the neighborhood like gargantuan spears, penetrating subway lines and underground passages to depths of thirty feet, crushing them, rupturing water mains and gas lines, and stabbing high into the sides of nearby office towers, where they lodged. The phone system, the fiber-optic network, and the electric power grid were knocked out. Ambulances, cars, and fire trucks were smashed flat by falling debris, and some were hammered five floors down from the street into the insane turmoil erupting inside the World Trade Center's immense "bathtub"—a ten-acre foundation hole, seventy feet deep, that suffered unimaginable violence as it absorbed the brunt of each tower's collapse.

Lombardi descended the stairwells of the North Tower to the plaza level, where he looked out and saw body parts scattered across the concrete. He went down another level, where all around him crowds were evacuating into West Street. But he was the chief engineer, and he felt a duty to respond—though how and to what he still had no idea. Prompted by memories of 1993, when a command post had been established in the complex's hotel (World Trade Center Three), he joined a few other Port Authority men and headed there through a passageway. They had assembled for a talk in the hotel bar along with some firemen when the place erupted in a tremendous roar. A pressure wave shattered glass, picked up the men, and threw them to the side. Lombardi thought that terrorists like those of 1993 had bombed the hotel and were maybe coming in through the doors, and he considered the irony that he had survived then only to die now, not 200 feet from where terrorists had hit before. The truth was stranger still: the South Tower had just collapsed over his head, and he had been saved by a few unusually heavy beams used in the structural splinting and patching up that he himself had directed after the earlier bombing. But he knew none of this at the time.

To his surprise, he felt nothing broken and no pain except for a burning in his eyes. That was widely the pattern of the day—survival as an all-or-nothing proposition. The room was dark, and so dusty that he could not breathe. He put a handkerchief to his mouth. Someone yelled to a fireman, "Could you please put on your flashlight?" The fireman did, to little avail. People stood up, saying, "Where are we? What's going on?" They lifted a steel roll-up door, thinking to get out, and found a group on the other side thinking to get in. The two groups frightened each other. A fireman went out to explore, and with visibility limited to about two feet, he nearly fell into a crater. He found a way across it and returned, saying, "Come on, I see a streetlight." They went out in single file. Lombardi found himself on a sidewalk, but otherwise noticed no change from the conditions that had existed inside. He lost track of his companions and walked down the street in confusion. He remembered the roar, and again thought of the bombing in 1993: had something gone off in the underground? He passed the south pedestrian bridge, which he recognized, and headed south on West Street. He had a scratch on his forehead that was bleeding. People came up to him offering help, and someone gave him some water. Finally he got far enough away to look back. He saw the North Tower standing, but not the South. He thought, "Wait a minute. The North Tower is there. I know the North Tower is there. But what happened to the South?" It was confounding, and he could not conceive of an answer. He was an engineer, but human, too. He walked on for a while, until for the second time that day he heard a roar. He stopped and turned and watched in disbelief as the North Tower fell.

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William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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