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Firefighters Want Ground Zero Book Canned

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Associated Press Writer

February 25, 2003, 10:18 PM EST

Outraged firefighters demanded on Tuesday that the National Book Critics Circle withdraw the nomination of a book that accuses fire department members of disrespecting human remains and looting ground zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

"It should be up for a fantasy award," former fire Chief Daniel Nigro said of "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," which is one of five finalists for the book critics award in the general nonfiction category.

The book, by William Langewiesche, has infuriated New York firefighters and others because it includes a passage relating the discovery of dozens of new jeans from the Gap _ still tagged, folded and stacked _ inside the cab of a fire truck pulled from the World Trade Center rubble.

"It's inconceivable that this man is going to be up for an award for the book he wrote," said Paul Miller, a firefighter with Ladder Co. 48 in the Bronx. "This guy put out blatant lies. He held it up as the truth, and now he's up for an award."

More than 100 protesters rallied outside the New School _ where the critics will announce the winners on Wednesday _ holding signs reading "Lies, Lies, Lies" and "It's fiction, not facts" and chanting, "We want the truth!"

Sarah Gold, an editor for Publishers Weekly and member of the NBCC board, said the awards committee had heard the protesters' complaints but would not withdraw the book.

Langewiesche, a longtime correspondent with The Atlantic Monthly, was granted full access to the cleanup site, where he conducted extensive interviews over several months. He has defended the accuracy of the book.

But Langewiesche failed to fact check, spread rumors and did not speak to authorities at the scene to verify his claims that firefighters looted valuables, said Rhonda Shearer, director of the WTC Living History Project and organizer of Tuesday's protest.

One office building near ground zero was "systematically rifled for valuables," Langewiesche wrote. "Whether by errant firemen, policemen or construction workers hardly mattered. All three groups were at various times implicated in a widespread pattern of looting that started even before the towers fell, and was to peak around Christmas with the brazen theft of office computers."

Shearer cited a letter from Deutche Bank, where the alleged looting took place, which said that the bank had no record of being contacted by Langewiesche and that it "never stated that there were occurrences of looting by 'firemen and policemen' as described in the book."

"If they nominated this book, they really challenge the credibility of the award itself," Shearer said. "This is not balanced reporting. This is not fair reporting."

"American Ground" also raises the issue of whether bodies recovered at the site were treated differently based on whether they were firefighters or not.

Fire Department of New York Chaplain Christopher Kennan, who worked at ground zero, disputed those allegations. All remains found at ground zero, he said, were prayed over, placed on stretchers, draped in American flags and escorted out of the ruins with an honor guard.

The book is published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The publisher has defended the book and said it was vigorously fact-checked.

"We have found nothing to date to challenge the integrity of `American Ground,"' it said.


On the Net:

National Book Critics Circle:

WTC Living History Project:

Copyright 2003, The Associated Press


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