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 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.
For copyright reasons, the entire text of this three-part series is not available online. Click the links below to read lengthy excerpts.
Part One: The Inner World (July/August 2002)
“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.”
Part Two: The Rush to Recover (July/August 2002)
“The firemen concentrated their efforts first on the debris where their colleagues were likely to lie, and as expected, they found pockets in the ruins of the stairwells in which the dead were piled on top of another. But the site never yielded the large concentration of victims—"the mother lode," Sam Melisi called it—that everyone was hoping for. Most of the dead were instead found "in dribs and drabs," as a discouraged fireman told me.”
Part Three: The Dance of the Dinosaurs (July/August 2002)
“The tribalism that grew up on the pile had origins so primitive that they can only be understood as instinctual. At the core was an us-versus-them mentality brought on by the mere act of donning a uniform. Whether as firefighters or as the two sorts of police, the uniformed personnel at the site were generally drawn from the same white ‘ethnic’ outer-borough neighborhoods and families, but as members of their respective organizations they had learned to distrust and resent the others.”