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.

A firefighter walks amid rubble near Ground Zero in New York on September 11, 2001.  (Peter Morgan / Reuters )

This is the first installment in a three-part series.
Read part two here and part three here.

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.


Early on I found a piece of high ground from which to watch the changes. It was inside the severely damaged and deserted Bankers Trust building, a black steel structure forty floors high, which stood across Liberty Street from the ruins and was eventually draped in dark safety netting and hung with a large American flag. In 1999 the German company Deutsche Bank had absorbed the Bankers Trust Corporation, and with it had acquired this building, whose offices it had occupied until the attack. During the South Tower's collapse steel spears and column sections had plunged into Bankers Trust, tearing a huge gash in its north face, destroying a load-bearing column for ten floors, spilling tons of office innards, and leaving the partially demolished floor slabs to sag like hammocks over a deadly void. In a crater at the base a mound of rubble lay laced with the remains of people who had been killed in the South Tower or on the street. There was serious concern at first that the building would not stand, but it did, and sturdily, because of redundancies in its design. The back offices, away from the Trade Center, were fine. And apparently no one had died inside. Firemen checked the spaces quickly, leaving their fluorescent-orange graffiti—SEARCHED—on each floor. In the dust that coated one wood-paneled wall someone, maybe from the Boston Fire Department's team, drew a sad face and scrawled,

Kill All Muslims

Then for a long time the Bankers Trust building was left alone.

Out of curiosity I went there one afternoon, and climbed a broken escalator to a ruined entranceway that was lit through blasted walls and shattered windows, and strewn with rubble. The air inside was hazy with smoke from the fires across the street. Wearing gloves and a rubber respirator mask, I stirred through the rubble like an archaeologist on contaminated ground, searching for traces of its former inhabitants—in this case the bankers of just a few weeks before. The search was disappointing, because the forces of destruction had swept the entranceway clear of their presence. But then I climbed a dead dark stairwell, and several floors higher emerged into a scene richly preserved from their lives.


The inner sanctum of the recovery effort was a corner room of Public School 89 with cinder-block walls painted creamy white, and linoleum floors now brown with the dirt tracked in from the site. The shelves that lined the walls were still filled with blocks, toys, and plastic crates of Dr. Seuss and other children's books. At the center stood four folding tables that had been pushed together, along with some folding chairs that had been scavenged from somewhere. When the tables grew crowded, people simply used the kindergarten stuff—pint-sized furniture built low to the ground, which was discovered to be strong enough even for 250-pound construction workers. Visitors often remarked on the strangeness of the scene, in which full-grown men and women, including powerful executives and renowned engineers, sat around as if they were playing at being children again. In fact the stakes were large, and so were many of the egos involved. But the room did not allow for displays. People there dressed alike in dirty boots and rough clothes, and no matter who they were, they had to prove themselves again. Their conversations were held in the open for lack of choice. There was no time for memos, or for chain consultations. The e-mail connection was permanently down. The phones did not work. When problems arose, they were dealt with right away, either in the room or, if more information was needed, with a walk down the street to the pile, and a decision on the spot. As the operational center of a billion-dollar effort, Public School 89 was a highly unusual place.

This is the first installment in a three-part series.
Read part two here and part three here.