Inside the Ruins

Inside the Ruins

William Langewiesche, the author of "American Ground," on life at the World Trade Center site after the towers fell

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.

—Sage Stossel

"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.

William Langewiesche
William Langewiesche   

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.

In the meantime I went down to police headquarters and looked into getting press credentials. But when I got to the press credentialing office there were these long lines of reporters, and after spending about an hour there, I just walked away. It was very clear to me that if I had to go through normal channels, it wasn't going to be worth it.

But when Kenneth Holden received our fax he immediately called up and said, "I've been an Atlantic reader for a long time, and I've read your stuff and bought your books." The guy was basically a huge fan, so he made it happen. He called City Hall and talked to the mayor's people and got special approval for me to come on the site as a writer without anything identifying me as a member of the press. I was given the same credentials as any engineer with full access to every part of the site, as well as full access to the meetings and to the files. Holden was so open with me that it was infectious. Other people got to be very open with me as well.

Did they all know that you were a reporter even though you weren't officially identified as one?

It didn't really come up. Some people knew I was a reporter, others had no idea who I was, and unless they asked me I wasn't going to go out of my way to tell them. It wasn't that I was trying to hide it, but it was kind of irrelevant because, to tell you the truth, I don't even really think of myself as a reporter. I never sit down and say, "This is an interview." I hang out with people and talk to them; sometimes I take notes, sometimes I don't. Basically, I immerse myself.

So they just got used to having you around?

They got used to having me around early on. I was like a fly on the wall, and then gradually I became a real participant. I started going with some of the core people like Peter Rinaldi and Pablo Lopez on their underground explorations. They were surveying the situation down in the ruins. It was truly dangerous stuff—not only because of what you breathe, but because nobody knew what was down there, and things were collapsing all over the place. I was with them on those runs, and after a while they understood that I was with them there in a big way. Where they went, I went. It was a very macho scene, but I feel at home in that culture. It's my own background.

Excavators on the pile

You write that for many of the people working to clean up the World Trade Center site, the project was a kind of "liberation," freeing them from "the everyday dullness of family life" and giving them a sense of mission. Do you have a sense that now that the cleanup is ending they're depressed to have to go back to their everyday lives?

The awareness that the end was coming began around February. There were still a lot more body parts to be recovered, people to be identified, and a lot of debris still remaining to be removed, but the pile had become a hole, and the hole was starting to become deep, and the mood changed. There was a generalized sadness that began to permeate the site, which had very much to do with this thing coming to an end. It was a peak experience for many of the people there. Almost everybody realized that they would never have anything like this again, they were going to return to the routine, whatever that meant, whether that was a firefighter routine (which is probably a little less routine than most routines) or an office worker routine, or whatever.

The sadness was misinterpreted in the press as being about the fact that not all the dead were going to be found. That was the cheap interpretation; hell, everybody knew from the very beginning that most of the people were never going to be found. Anyone who was close to the burning could see that most of the bodies were going to end up vaporized. So the sadness can't really be explained that way. It had more to do with the realization that this was all coming to an end.

At one point you describe the World Trade Center towers as "monolithic buildings" that "visibly" represented "the totalitarian ideals of planning and control." You characterize the cleanup on the other hand as an unruly but productive free-for-all where people of all classes and backgrounds had the opportunity to step in and make contributions as individuals—rising to (or falling from) positions of leadership on the basis of their ability to take control of a situation and inspire confidence in others. As a project characterized by meritocracy and individual initiative, do you consider the cleanup to be in certain ways "more American" than the towers themselves had been?

The reaction to the collapse of those towers represented the healthiest strains and the strongest strains in the United States. The towers themselves, before they were attacked, represented something else about the United States, and probably not the most attractive thing. They represented Big Brother in the biggest way. They represented Big Organization—the monolithic company or government. They were very much a totalitarian representation of centralized structure and control. I would assume that most people in this country at this stage in our history do not think of that as being the real backbone of America. Everyone would agree that the World Trade Center as a piece of city-building was pretty much a failure. After many years—decades—it was slowly getting to be a little more humanized, but it suffered from the monolithic thing. When we replace them, we're not going to build the same type of twin-tower monolith—and not just because we don't want to get hit again. I think it's because American culture no longer really wants that. It was very much of a '50s/'60s/'70s kind of thing. The United States is less totalitarian now than it was before. Not that we were ever totalitarian, but the strains of totalitarianism that exist within all cultures, and that led to the building of those towers, have been damped down since then. What we saw in the cleanup and recovery effort was a more authentic slice of American life. And it was very encouraging. It was amazing, actually. I found that we were looking at a very, very healthy culture, an expression of cultural and political genius.

Was there any critical mass of opinion at the site about what should replace the towers?

There were several subjects that were not talked about at the site. One of them was what should go up there next. That was really seen as the domain of New York politics. It was sort of like, let the chattering classes chatter—let them argue whether it should be a monument, or a this, or a that. Basically they were too busy to worry about it. Another thing people didn't talk about very much was terrorism. There was definitely a feeling that we, the workers, are responding in a way that is an act of defiance toward those who attacked us. But it really wasn't discussed. The other thing people didn't talk about was Washington, D.C. After spending nine months with these people, I have no idea what most of their politics are. Are they Republicans or Democrats? What do they think of George Bush? It was totally irrelevant. Every once in a while some politician would show up, and people would say, Don't get between him and a camera, or you're going to get hurt! That went for George Bush; it went for Cheney; it went for Giuliani: Just don't get between these guys and a camera! That was basically the extent of it.

Your article discusses in significant detail how the towers were put together, how and why they fell, and which design flaw (the clustering of the stairwells) was most costly to human life. Is it your sense that in the wake of a tragedy like this people feel a need to understand the exact sequence and inner workings of what happened as a means of gaining a kind of mastery over it?

From the archives:

"The Crash of EgyptAir 990" (November 2001)
The author, given unprecedented access to flight data, reconstructs the final minutes—and rules out all explanations for the crash except deliberate suicide and mass murder by the Egyptian co-pilot. By William Langewiesche

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Culture Crash" (November 15, 2001)
William Langewiesche on the cultural reverberations of a seemingly straightforward airplane crash.

One of the main distinctions among different societies is the degree to which they're able to look honestly at failures or accidents (whether these are technical accidents like an airplane coming apart, or a political failure like the war in Vietnam). There are many, many places in the world that cannot look at these kinds of things honestly. That's what my EgyptAir piece was about. The World Trade Center is a more complicated example. It was hit harder than any building could reasonably be expected to withstand. So the failure of the building is a failure only in relative terms. It's not like the World Trade Center just kind of fell down. It got hit damn hard and burned hard. Even so, this culture is inclined to look very carefully at the mechanics of the collapse in order to understand, "Okay, why did it fall?" and "Is it possible that something can be learned from this collapse?" The frank look at what the dynamics of escape were in the hours and minutes before the buildings fell is a very necessary and healthy exercise. It is very much a part of the story of the victorious American emergence from the tragedy.

You've got to call it like you see it. The stairwells were clustered too close together. If they hadn't been clustered so closely together it is very likely, though not inevitable, that people would have been able to escape from the upper floors above the impact zones. They were cut off in the North Tower—not a single person above the impact zone in the North Tower lived. (In the South Tower one of the stairways survived and a few people managed to escape.)

You write that some people distinguished themselves so much by the way they handled the cleanup that their stations in life will end up dramatically changing as a result. Can you talk a little bit about who some of those people were and what, exactly, changed for them?

One of the best examples is the Port Authority engineer Peter Rinaldi, who discovered great strengths within himself—an ability to improvise and fly solo, so to speak—that he had not known he had before. His life has been fundamentally changed. The confidence that he feels as a result of this experience is palpable and is felt by others around him. It's really quite surprising to see the personality change. There's almost a swagger to Rinaldi right now. And not in a bad way. I love it; I think it's great.

What will the general focus of the second and third installments of "American Ground" be?

The organization of the piece is thematic rather than chronological. The second part, "The Rush to Recover," begins with the first really thorough, integrated look at what went on in the air before the airplanes hit. It's what I think of as the aerial ballet of that morning in which those airplanes were crossing each other's paths in the most amazing ways. Then it goes on to tell the story of the unlikely duo of Kenneth Holden and Michael Burton from the Department of Design and Construction. The rush to find the living, and then the dead, is also a big part of the story. There's a discussion of forensics—exactly how bodies are found and what happens to them, and what it was like dealing with them.

Part three, "The Dance of the Dinosaurs," is about the mining operation. It talks about the physical problems of moving the steel; about the tugboat and barging operation; about the culture on the water; and about the Freshkills landfill operation (where the debris was sifted through and sifted through and sifted through to make sure that as few pieces of people got discarded as possible). It's also about the human aspects of the winding down. It includes the end of the cleanup—the feeling when the job was finally done after nine months, and it sticks with the same characters who have been in the series all along.

Looking back, what impressions from the time you spent at the site have stuck with you most?

Strongest impressions? God, the impressions I had... The strongest impressions are probably related to the kindergarten rooms at P.S. 89 where the recovery effort was headquartered—this strange, chaotic atmosphere, this urgent all-American creation going on in this highly egalitarian environment. The high and the low were rubbing shoulders, and all were having to define themselves anew in life. Good solutions were being rewarded. But maybe more importantly, stupidities, mistakes, and bad ideas were being acknowledged as such, but people were not being punished for them. It was quite surprising to see the level of intellectual maturity that was emerging spontaneously in this fantastic environment, with people sitting around at kids' desks and chairs. Of all the memories I have, that one would be very high up. Other strong memories are of the underground expeditions. There was one in particular that was a vertical dive basically headfirst through crevices and rubble into blackness seventy feet below on the east wall. That was very hairy. And I will not forget it.

Did you dread going down there, or were you kind of exhilarated by it?

It's the kind of thing where if you told me what it was going to be like down in those cracks—going down headfirst and all that, and you asked me if I wanted to go, I would have said, "Hell, yeah, I'm going! Try to keep me away." On the other hand, during the actual thing it was very unpleasantly claustrophobic, and scary in a way. But the job of the writer is to represent the reader. And that means you don't shy away from stuff. I've been in war zones before, and it's the same thing. There are times when you may be frightened, you may be tired, but you're also extremely alert. You don't need to take notes. You remember every word and every moment.

You just have to not let the readers down by getting yourself killed.

Or not let the readers down by sitting in Washington, D.C. and policy-wonking. That's the academic thing—to talk about the world without being in it. Basically, I've always been the guy who gets paid to go out in the world. It's what I do for a living, and I love it. I draw enormous pleasure and strength from that.