Interview: William Langewiesche discusses his experiences at ground zero and the site's impact on the country

November 20, 2002
The following text is excerpted from NPR Interview.


CONAN: This is Neal Conan, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION.
We're speaking with journalist William Langewiesche about his book "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," which tells the story of what happened at ground zero after the planes crashed into the buildings. If you have a question, you're invited to join the discussion. Our phone number is (800) 989-TALK, and our e-mail address is

And, William Langewiesche, there's been controversy, as you well know, over some of the details in your book about looting that supposedly happened at ground zero. In fact, some firefighters gathered to protest this past Monday when you were giving a reading of your book at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York. We're going to play a clip of tape from Battalion Chief Joseph Nardone which touches on the controversy about jeans found in a fire truck but which also hint at the emotional objections of the firefighters over your work. Joseph Nardone starts by referring to an article that he read that ran in the New York Post on October 18th.

(Soundbite of speech)

Chief JOSEPH NARDONE (New York Fire Department): My wife was not with me at the time. When she pulled up, she said, `What's wrong?' I said, `I've just read something that's just incredibly unbelievable to me.' I'm here to say that I knew that entire crew for over 11 years. There was no finer crew in the New York City Fire Department working that day. Every one of those men were professional, dedicated and were out for one thing: to save people.

Unidentified Man: Were there jeans found in the wreckage of Ladder 4?

Chief NARDONE: That's the incredible thing. He uses the words so loosely with his facts, saying that the jeans were from The Gap store. Ladies and gentlemen, The Gap store was in the north tower, but Ladder 4 was parked on Liberty Street in front of the south tower, attempting to dodge the bodies of the poor victims falling from the buildings. They parked under the glass canopy. The jeans involved were from the structure store, and Ladder 4's rig blew through that store and was pushed four stories below ground. That's how the jeans wound up on that truck. And by the way, they weren't stacked in neat piles. They were strewn all over the place.

CONAN: That is Battalion Chief Joseph Nardone, speaking about the men of Ladder 4 who died in the collapse of the building.

William Langewiesche, your response?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: This has obviously been a very difficult thing. It is--I'll tell you how--let me put it this way. I think I'm going to reverse this. The problem here is the way this is being repeated, basically. It's become kind of a tabloid thing. You notice that the gentleman in question had not read the piece, apparently. He was talking about reading it in some other paper. This is a long piece of writing, and it is a detailed and in-depth piece, a complex piece of writing, and it requires to be read in context. As far as looting goes in general at the site, every time I mention it--now I think no one is arguing that there was widespread looting at the site--I think that would be too silly--and that many different kinds of people were involved, although few of them. It's not by any means, you know, the majority. It's small, small groups.

Every time I talk about that--and I have to talk about it because I'm trying to write frankly, as I always do--I point out that this was a battlefield, that--I'm not pointing moralistic fingers and finger wagging in any way. That's number one. I understand it. I have never seen a battlefield in which things weren't being stolen or filched, OK? It's just part of human nature. It's the breakdown of normalcy that goes with an extreme situation.

Second, I never identified anybody in my effort not to point fingers because, for one thing, I also am not a muckraker, you know? It's not the kind of writing I do. So I have no--whatever ladder company or not ladder company--I have not the slightest intention ever of identifying, and I did not. I mean, I specifically didn't talk about what kind of truck or where it was. It was the vaguest, vaguest description. The reason for it was that my subject was the pile. I was not writing about what happened on 9/11. I was writing about the culture that was emerging on the pile, and part of that culture were extreme divisions between the groups, OK? Those divisions were, in fact, as much the fault of, for instance, the construction workers as of any other group.

CONAN: And when you speak about the groups, you're primarily speaking of fire, police and construction workers.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Yeah, there were two types of police, Port Authority and city, and the New York Fire Department and the construction teams, who sort of formed certainly the largest group and began after a while to act sort of as if they were a group. This particular story was told to me, was reported to me by people who I had known and worked with closely for months who were very level-headed people, who were there, who had proved to be, you know, very reliable. And it was then verified. I verified it at the time, and we ran at The Atlantic extensive fact checking on this, believe me--OK?--through independent channels.

So the question is really interpretation. What I want to say, though, more than that, is: It is context, because I was writing about the story, not because of what happened on 9/11, but because I was talking about how certain construction workers were, in fact, getting overly emotional and overly divisive, and they reacted. The point of this story, if it can be seen in context and not read from other papers--the point of the story is that the construction workers--if anyone was at fault here, it was them, not some nameless fire crew, of which I don't know. But they should not, obviously, have reacted the way they did, which was to sort of jump in and among the jeans and start making a big fuss about it, which further increased the divisiveness on the pile.

This was understood by the people like Mike Burton, who were running the show, that there was this growing divisiveness and it had to be accommodated. The emotions, basically, had to be accommodated, and indeed, finally the emotions were accommodated on all sides and the story continued. This piece of writing is a celebration of America. It is not in any sense a criticism, because there was very little, really, to criticize there. We are, you know, a complex society full of divisions, yet we can accommodate these divisions, and that's what happened there. I hate to see this book being hijacked by this sort of very flimsy soundbite type of excerpting and being used to stir up emotions, which are very understandable emotions. I mean, I of all people understand those emotions. I worked among them for months.

But it is a complete misreading not only of the particular story, but more importantly, it's a complete hijacking of the book, I mean, which is not at all about looting. Looting is, as I say, really not much of a concern of mine. I would be very surprised to see a site like this without the occasional looting. Big deal.

CONAN: I should point out this--all of about two pages in your book, and that the account that Chief Nardone was talking about--the alternate version of the story--that was also in your book and is included as well.