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.”