Introduction to the historical background

There had been no criticism about the American Ground. Beginning in June 2002, the promotional hype from Atlanthic Monthly and Farrar, Straus and Giroux landed sparkling praise for William Langewiesche’s Ground Zero tale in book reviews and press reports. The public controversy, that involved questioning Langewiesche’s factual accuracy, first began when the October 24 issue of New York Observer hit newsstands on Oct. 16, 2002. The Observer writer, Joe Hagan, led the first wave of, what became the ongoing press reactions regarding our document –WTC Living History Project Group Response, Part I, II, III–that noted 56 corrective points about William Langewiesche’s magazine version of American Ground.

Hagan’s article broke the story about both the WTC Living History Project’s existence and the content of our study that had been sent to both Atlantic Monthly and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Slate writer, Timothy Noah, quickly weighed in the next day (Oct. 17, 2002) and New York Post writer Bob McManus roared back the next day (Oct. 18, 2002) both with immediate lashes of criticism against our, well, criticism of Langewiesche. We have discovered, however, since that time that pertinent disclosures, such as the fact that Cullen Murphy was a regular writer for Slate (1996-1999) as well as being the Atlantic Monthly’s managing editor, should have been made public by Noah. How could Noah confidently and accurately fact-check our fact-checking within 24 hours or less seems? Just on the face of it, such an impulsive and protective reaction would seem more based on blind faith and loyalty to Murphy, than any rigorous journalist practices done by Noah.

We have added numbers (Dec. 9, 2003) to each point below. This numbering system should help readers to address Noah’s specific charge that he could only “glean” “precisely six” legitimate”errors” in Langewiesche’s book after “factoring out rants, misreading and disagreements of interpretation.” See if your count matches Noah’s count of only six errors. Read Part I, II, III below. You can always let Noah know if you think his count is, as he would say, “utterly cracked.”

Click here for Noah’s article from Slate. Many more salient facts from diligent research can be found presently on the rest of the Web site and more is forthcoming in our Website redesign (tentatively scheduled for January 2004). Write us with your comments.

Authors: Rhonda Roland Shearer, Director; Deputy Assistant Chief – Ronald R. Spadafora, FDNY ; Nick Carcich, Construction; Captain – Mike Banker, FDNY; Peter L. Gorman, President of Uniform Fire Officers Association; John Dunne, Captain’s Representative Uniform Fire Officers Association; Bobbie Gray, Locals 14 and 15 (Operating Engineers) et al. See link for full list of committee.

Response to American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. Article by William Langewiesche published in three parts in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Factual corrections to Part 1, “The Inner World,” August 2002.

No. Part 1

(with Internet version pagination)

Quotes with factual errors

(underlining of text not original)

Corrected facts
1 Page 4

“The restricted zone had shrunk by late September to forty downtown blocks bounded by Chambers, Broadway, Rector and the Hudson River – which was still a large area to be out of commission.”

The area that Mr. Langewiesche states was “out of commission” was, in fact, much larger. West Street was also restricted up to Canal Street, and moreover, there were two zones, not one.

2 Page 6

“The job of mapping the chaos fell to Uniformed Services, a small team of about six engineers who did some of the riskiest work at the site, climbing through crevices of a strange and unstable netherworld, calmly charting its conditions, and returning without complaint after major collapses had occurred”

It was engineers at the WTC site who went to FEMA’s “firemen’s school” to get themselves trained about confined spaces for two days in April 2002, one month before the site officially closed. The experts on “confined space” at the site were the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) assisted by the NYPD/ESU and PAPD/ESU. The entire World Trade Center underground was first explored by FDNY beginning on 9/11. It was the FDNY that first reported flooding conditions in the lowest levels of the WTC which indicated potential slurry wall failure. Any surveys to be carried out had to be approved by FDNY. FDNY had sole control of the site until the end of October, and after that date they constituted half of the Joint Task Force (The other half was the DDC.) Permission and escort from the FDNY continued to be required.

Charlie Vitchers, Bovis General Superintendent (Bovis took over control of the site as of January 1, not “by Spring” as Mr. Langewiesche incorrectly reports in Part III, p. 125, Moreover, Vitchers said, that no reporter or fact checker from Atlantic Monthly ever talked to him), states that it is “incorrect to say that ‘the mapping . . . fell to . . . engineers'” as if they drove the direction of where to excavate. According to Vitchers, the mapping was driven by Uniformed Services, who led construction companies and workers with their records of where their uniformed PATH/tube personnel were posted, or last seen, at the time of the collapses.

This approach leading recovery – of determining where Uniformed Services were last located – was not done because of a bias by Uniformed Services toward the recovery of Uniformed Services personnel. This approach gave tangible and fruitful targets in overwhelming debris to find all victims – (civilians too) as was indeed the case, for police and firemen’s bodies were found with the civilians they were trying to save.

So the direction of where to dig came from the Uniformed Services. The Construction Superintendent then directed the engineers. Engineers, in order to do their surveys, were always escorted by Uniformed Services – the experts on the site in building collapses, rescue and recovery operations.

3 Page 6

“Indeed, it became obvious from the traces where laptops had been, and from all the opened bags, that the room had been systematically rifled for valuables – 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 from this very building. The psychology involved was complex and had more to do with a breakdown of the social order – a sense of crisis and of special privilege – than with any particular criminal inclination to steal. People urinated on carpets in Deutsche Bank as well. And presumably the same people who had robbed this room had also written ‘Fuck Bin Laden’ on the display board because a righteous sense of war was part of the package too. But to me none of that seemed important anyway.”

Many groups had access to the WTC site, not just the “firemen,” “policemen” and “construction workers.” These included numerous federal agencies, such as the National Guard, individual volunteers and volunteer organizations as well as clergy, counselors – even massage therapists. Rumors were indeed focused on firefighters, police and construction workers, however this, in itself, makes it no more likely or true that these particular three groups, more than other groups, were the perpetrators of these crimes. The injustice of Mr. Langewiesche’s slur becomes clear when we exchange his “blanketing” of construction workers, cops and firemen’s groups as thieves to other groups traditionally treated with prejudice – be they Hispanic Americans or African Americans.

4 Page 7

“Some of the people were new to the scene: a police rescue team of five men, looking dandyish in their kneepads, carabinas and helmet lamps and an equal number of firemen who had recently arrived for the standard one month rotation.”

It is incorrect to say “police” were “new,” serving at the site for a “standard one-month rotation” or as “new” judged by the newness or amount of their equipment (see also Page 75 in Part II where Mr. Langewiesche also states that firemen and police “came in on one-month tours.”) Moreover, which police does Mr. Langeweische refer to here? Importantly, the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) and the New York Police Department Emergency Services Units (NYPD/ESU) operated under different organizing structures. Port Authority police did not have a 30-day rotation. The day and night tour personnel assigned to ground zero remained the entire time (Sept. – May) The NYPD ESU did not have a 30 day rotation either: keeping only a skeleton crew to cover the ten ESU trucks, the 500 plus members of NYPD/ESU worked 6 days per week continuously until the Mayor’s cut back in early November. From early November, NYPD/ESU officers would work their days off, based on 2 days one week, 3 days the next week and so forth. Another 35 core NYPD/ESU officers still continued to work 6 days per week until the end of May.

5 Page 7

“The firemen were young, and visibly more relaxed than the police. Several ventured like sightseers into the PATH tube, playing the beams of their flashlights across its iron rings into the green and red puddles of oily fluid.”

The depiction of visual inspections of a dangerous environment by trained and dedicated firefighters as “sightseers” is inaccurate and an injustice to those who risk their lives in professional service and in their extensive training.

6 Page 8

“Ultimately this made them enemies as well as friends primarily among the firemen’s widows who grew angry when in the spring it became obvious that so many of their husbands’ bodies would never be found. Unwilling to see the search come to an end some of them began hunting for traitors in their midst – and as often happens, they turned on the mediator. Melisi was tainted by association. But then they began accusing him of betrayal, they could not have been more wrong.”

Victim’s family groups and Sam Melisi all deny this claim. Marianne Fontana, a widow of a firefighter and leader of family groups, denies that they ever doubted Sam or any firefighter’s loyalty. “This is a boldface lie. The firefighters were always our allies” (the active and vocal, family members of victims).

In fact, the official coalition of family groups recently gave Sam Melisi its highest award.

7 Page 9

“.The police seemed to think that their sergeant was in charge and apparently the Sergeant did too. . . . The cop with the electronic sniffer was clearly concerned, and was checking the indicators so often that he was falling behind. . . . We slowed to let him catch up.”

The “Police” would be either the PAPD or the NYPD/ESU. They are not correctly referred to as the “police.” Specifics and accuracies, such as whether the officer being referred to was NYPD or PAPD, is especially important, since Mr. Langewiesche’s total statement, only here in abbreviated form, describes this sergeant as an awkward, naïve and untrained buffoon.

Moreover, both trained FDNY and PAPD/ESU personnel suggest that Mr. Langewiesche should have stayed behind the sergeant who likely was the one in charge, and definitively would have had training in special operations such as the detection of toxic gases.

8 Page 11

“. . . followed later by Garlock and the young fire crew. For no good reason one of the firemen tried to climb a twenty-foot chimney in the unstable rubble, and he had to be pulled back and told to calm down. No one thought much about it, because so many of the firemen were emotional, especially when they were new.”

Engineer, Richard Garlock completely denies the accuracy of this statement, as does FDNY Battalion Chief Steve Rasweiller, who was also there. Langewiesche, constantly referring to “new recruits,” suggests inexperience and lack of training, which is not the case for uniformed service personnel responsible for underground searches, whether NYPD, PAPD or FDNY. Amazingly, Mr. Langewiesche never mentions Steve Rasweiller, Melisi’s supervisor, who was continuously present at Ground Zero with Sam from Sept. 11 – June 24, 2002 (when the very last truck of debris pulled out of Ground Zero, as reported by NY Times). Moreover, why is one of only two firefighters Mr. Langewiesche names someone who was at Ground Zero less than half the time, in comparison with many others? John O’Connell left Ground Zero by December and was, therefore, only at Ground Zero four out of ten months? (Note that PAPD police and NYPD were out of recovery as of May 30 – FDNY worked an extra month until the last truck of debris rolled out June 24 – see NY Times article, June 25, 2002.) Moreover, Mr. Langewiesche strangely does not quote anyone beyond the rank of “Firefighter”; no FDNY Lieutenant, Captain, Battalion Chief, Deputy Chief, Staff Chief or Incident Commander in supervisory roles at the site. Also, Mr. Langewiesche never once quotes a PAPD or NYPD/ESU officer of any rank anywhere in his three articles.

9 Page 12 Magazine Version -Part 1 Book Version Pages 35-36

“. . . the bank’s initial team discovered that others had been there before, attempting to pry open the vault’s door and to cut it from above, in both cases unsuccessfully. It was never clear who the intruders were, where they had come from, or how they had proposed to get away through these ruins with more than just a few ingots. However, if the unbuilding of the World Trade Center had already shown one thing, it was that the workers were resourceful. The bank hurriedly organized a convoy of armored trucks. . . .”

DIFFERENT TEXT IN BOOK VERSION: “Though it was presumed that the intruders had been construction workers, it never became clear who exactly they were…it was that the workers were resourceful and persistent”.

Lt. Bill Keegan, PAPD Night Commander in charge of these transports, and Lt. John Moran, NYPD/ESU Night Commander who was also there that night, both deny this story as completely false. There was a door with some apparent damage that they investigated – which ended up not leading to the vault – it was determined to have only old distress to the top of the metal doorframe. Lt. Keegan has the videotape. So who was presuming that “intruders” were threatening theft. if not the police? Was it the Bank of Nova Scotia team that accused construction workers? Lt. Keegan explained that his understanding of why the gold and silver ingots needed to be moved was due to the new phase of demolition which would keep the vault “inaccessible” for several weeks. The Bank of Nova Scotia decided that they did not want the ingots inaccessible for any long length of time and if it would not interfere with the human recovery they would like to remove the vault contents.

Also, it is incorrect, and factually inconsistent, to claim on the one hand that “It was never clear who the intruders were, where they had come from. . . ,” then in the next sentence accuse that “it was the workers.” The first part of Mr. Langewiesche’s statement is true – it never was clear who, if anyone, were attempting to steal ingots. Why then did he turn around and blanketly accuse “the workers”? Mr. Langewiesche proves himself, with his own access, that it was easy to talk your way into having full “official” access to the interior of the site – even though it was not legal and lawful to do so. Moreover, alleged attempted thefts or actual thefts anywhere around ground zero could have just as easily been done by professional thieves or people exploiting their positions as some of the numerous unpaid volunteers throughout the site. Why single out only 3 groups, firefighters, police and construction workers of “widespread looting” at ground zero.

10 Page 15

“Those who later believed that they had seen looks of knowing self-sacrifice in the firemen’s eyes were understandably confusing the chronology of events. The looks in the firemen’s eyes came from the extreme fatigue of having to hump heavy loads up so many stairs, as well as from the anxiety of moving into battle – in this case against a dangerous fire that would have to be fought from below. The firemen remembered the successes of 1993 as clearly as anyone, and they were no more prescient than others.”

Peter Hayden, FDNY Deputy Chief in charge of the 1st Division on September 11th, also remembers firefighters’ faces with fear and resignation of a realistic possibility of forthcoming death, as he dispatched them to posts within the burning towers. No psychic forethought would be needed. Firefighters would readily know from standard training the unique danger of fires that realistically could not be fought in two of the world’s tallest buildings bombed by jet planes. It is unrealistic and inaccurate to think that anyone – let alone trained experts in fire extinguishment and rescue – would have any level of confidence due to FDNY’s prior success in the 1993 WTC bombing, as Mr. Langewiesche claims here. Moreover, most firefighters weren’t there in 1993.

11 Page 17

“Corley told me that given the weights and quantities involved, even the inspections of the steel . . . proved to be an inefficient means of gathering evidence. . . . More important were videos and firsthand accounts from September 11, the original plans . . . and the application of methodical science. Corley had confidence that the catastrophe could be reasoned through.”

Statistical sampling methods would not be daunted by large quantities and weights. In fact, these methods were developed to manage and obtain rigorous results when dealing with vastness. Direct observation, empirical measure, and sampling of the actual steel would be at the heart of scientific method and therefore make Mr. Langewiesche’s positioning of Mr. Corley’s notion of empirical inspection and knowledge as in opposition to “the application of methodical science” and reasoning incorrect.

12 Page 21

“Leading the effort was the unlikely duo of Kenneth Holden and his lieutenant, Michael Burton – the two Department of Design and Construction officials who had emerged from bureaucratic obscurity on September 11 to orchestrate an effective response to the disaster. Holden, the DDC’s shrewd and intellectually sophisticated commissioner . . .”

Factual errors are densely packed on Pages 21 – 23, moving from the singular/discrete mistakes to the more compound errors:

13 Page 22

“These were the forces, roughly 3,000 strong, that Ken Holden and Mike Burton unleashed.In a painful and probably necessary process they slowly wrested control from the firemen. In late October the operation became a ‘joint command’ between all the Uniformed services and the DDC.”

According to FDNY Deputy Chiefs Peter Hayden and Ron Spadafora, (both WTC Incident Commanders during September 11 through June 24) the Joint Command was not “between all the Uniformed services and the DDC” but was between the FDNY and the DDC. Since Port Authority police and NYPD/ESU were not officially part of the Joint Command, it is incorrect to conclude that “the split by long standing rivalries” resulted in leaving “the civilians in charge.”

Moreover, Mr. Langewiesche further compounds his error by stating that this “fact” (that the split among PA police and firemen and NYPD caused Uniformed Services a loss of control of the Joint Command) became “obvious” at the “regularly scheduled unified meetings.”

If Mr. Langewiesche’s other stated premise, that he was an “insider” at Ground Zero, attending meetings and talking to NYPD, PAPD “and anyone else who played a significant role in the clean up” (see “Inside the Ruins,” June 17, 2002, interview with Mr. Langewiesche in The Atlantic Online), it is truly astonishing that he would not

have known that the PAPD police and

the NYPD/ESU would have liked to have been in the official Joint Command but were not.

14 Page 22

“Realistically, because the Uniformed services were split by long-standing rivalries and had little of technical value to contribute, the joint command left the civilians in charge – a fact that became increasingly obvious at the regularly scheduled ‘unified’ meetings, where the Fire Department retained a functional veto power, but only the DDC seemed capable of moving ahead.”

Mr. Langewiesche also incorrectly states on Page 22 that the branches of Uniformed Services were not only split, but “had little of technical value to contribute” to the “Joint Command” therefore making the civilians (DDC, Mike Burton and Ken Holden of the Joint Command) the ones “in charge.”

To say that the Police and Fire Departments “had little of technical value to contribute” is factually wrong and is demeaning to the history of professionalism and competence of the FDNY and NYPD/ESU and PAPD/ ESU. FDNY were the ones who risked their lives and determined that there was water in the lower levels which was the first indication provided to engineers of a possible breach in the slurry wall/PATH tubes.

DDC had nothing to do with the mechanisms or expertise in recoveries and Sept. 11, 2001 – May 30, 2002 was officially a “rescue and recovery operation.” Professional skills, such as site safety, regulation of hazardous materials at the site, OSHA liaison activities, fire and dust suppression, confined space operations, and reconnaissance were among the FDNY’s expertise. NYPD, PAPD experts did confined spaces, entry and recon, in addition to the recovery of remains. PAPD and NYPD/ESU had expertise in the collection and recording of valuables and evidence and site security. FDNY also had specialized operations (SOC) personnel with long-time training and experience in building collapse operations and in construction – including shoring, tunneling, trenching.

Moreover, Mr. Langewiesche further compounds his error by stating that this “fact” (that the split among PA police and firemen and NYPD caused Uniformed Services a loss of control of the Joint Command) became “obvious” at the “regularly scheduled unified meetings.”

15 Page 22

“Emotions were raw . . . widespread feeling . . . of escalating possessiveness . . . where it divided the three main groups (fire, police, and construction) and sometimes set them against one another.”

The idea that Mr. Langewiesche was actually “sitting in” these meetings from late October to January 1 and did not know who was in charge is completely discrediting, especially when viewed in the context of a legend of other errors listed in this document. Army may fight Navy in the bars, but like in a B war movie it’s the outsider who is exposed as a fake American by his lack of sports knowledge. There was, in fact, at Ground Zero, a true shared culture and mutual struggle against outside forces with different goals, despite rivalries and differences among recovery workers.

16 Page 22 – 23

“The firemen in particular felt that they had a special relationship with the site, not only because they had lost 343 people there – out of a force of 14,000 – but also because afterwards their survivors, along with their dead, had been idealized as national heroes. . . .”

“Still, there was resentment by the police, who had lost plenty of their own people, and by the construction crews, who took it upon themselves to remember the far greater number of civilian dead. These tensions flared especially over the differing treatment of human remains – on the one extreme, the elaborate flag-draped ceremonials that the firemen accorded their own dead, and on the other, the jaded ‘bag ’em and tag ’em’ approach that they took to civilians.”

Mr. Langewiesche also incorrectly states that firemen “lost 343” – “out of a force of 14,000.” The true facts for fiscal year 2002:

11,500 members in Fire Extinguishment

3,500 members in EMS (uniform)

15,000 total members in uniform

Facts support the falseness of Mr. Langewiesche’s statements that firefighters were only interested in their own dead, not cops or civilians.

A retired firefighter, Captain Bill Butler, whose firefighter son died on 9/11 and who was one of the fathers who worked as a volunteer in the recovery of human remains, rigorously and angrily denies this charge. Bill Butler and other insiders explain that no boundaries could realistically be emotionally drawn among groups because civilians, firefighters, police victims’ families were frequently related as family and friends. Retired firefighter Bill Butler, for example, had a close friend whose child worked as a civilian in Cantor Fitzgerald and was killed on September 11, 2001. Mr. Butler states, “How can I or others only be interested in recovery of firefighters?” Bill’s other son Steve is, in fact, a PAPD sergeant, who worked alongside his firefighter father doing recoveries of PAPD, NYPD, FDNY and civilians for many months. John Viggiano, also a retired firefighter who worked as a recovery worker at the site, lost two sons on 9/11 – one an NYPD/ESU cop, the other a firefighter. Everyone wanted to find their own and to help others find theirs, whether a civilian or a department member. Realistically, no one knew when faced with a piece of glutinous mass if it was a friend’s child, FDNY, PAPD or a civilian. Respect and quiet reverence for life and grief of shared death was the major aura at the site in regard to bodies and body parts. It is factually incorrect and an injustice to the living and dead to state that firefighters accorded “elaborate flag-draped ceremonials” for “their own dead” and were “jaded” in treatment of civilian dead.

Bill Butler exclaims, “This is so definitely not the case,” as demonstrated by the fact that he and other current and former firefighters even stood with PAPD and NYPD/ESU personnel in a dignified flag-draped honor guard for a PAPD K-9 also lost on 9/11. Significantly, Mr. Langewiesche completely misses where the real “bagging and tagging” did occur — at the Fresh Kills dump. Recovery workers – not administrators – had to face, clean up, try to subvert, or correct the mess created by DDC’s speed of debris removal. For example, it was construction workers, high atop scaffolding (whose job it was to systematically reach the top of the back of dump trucks to torch-cut rebar and metal above the edge and then cover debris with a tarp) who found a mummified hand/arm of a woman sticking up and out of the metal debris as it was on its way to the barge and to the Staten Island dump. It is known fact that uniformed personnel had to do “a recovery” out of the back of this and other dump trucks.

This particular incident and many others happened especially in November at the height of the Mayor’s office’s push for speed and the reduction of uniformed recovery workers. Moreover, it was only at the WTC site that clergy would be called to join the recovery workers for any discovery of human remains, for important moments of respect, dignity and prayer. Faced with inhumanity, recovery workers, most importantly, transformed barbarism into civilized behavior for the nation and the world. In these few moments there was acknowledgment of our connection to these approximately 20,000 of nameless, faceless parts and wholes of humans who deserved respect. No such rituals existed at the Fresh Kills Dump. No clergy, no honor guard, no flag-draped ceremony existed as a dignity at the garbage dump unearthing of friends, family or complete strangers.

17 Page 23

“A strange blindness caused them to persist with this behavior despite the ease with which it could have been remedied. Even Sam Melisi participated in it, for instance once bemoaning a ‘drought’ to me when the remains being uncovered were merely those of civilians. It was a surprisingly ganglike view, and it encouraged a gang mentality among others on the pile.”

Sam Melisi also denies that he ever demeaned the finding of civilian remains or the reality of a “gang-like view . . . on the pile.”

18 Page 23

“The Fire Department search parties operated on a regularized schedule in small groups beside the diesel excavators, and they sifted through the fresh debris with workmanlike efficiency. But they also took risks for no obvious reasons – jumping suddenly into newly opened debris holes, climbing on the unstable cliffs. . . .” . Despite all the divisions at the site, this “. . . event, so extreme that they required extreme actions in return, was the fundamental understanding that people shared – and, indeed, that the culture at the site demanded.”

Mr. Langewiesche incorrectly states as fact that “the Fire Department search parties” . . . “took risks for no obvious reasons – jumping suddenly into new opened debris holes, climbing on the unstable cliffs. . . .” Since Mr. Langewiesche has no declared expertise in building collapse or risk assessment, how can he accurately represent to readers that he can determine from his observations that firefighters in general took particular unnecessary risks or that a particular cliff was unstable?

The safety record itself contradicts Mr. Langewiesche’s characterization of workers at the site as using “extreme actions” in response to extreme events, and, in fact, suggests the opposite. According to statistical probabilities, it is a “mathematical marvel” and a testimony to competence that no one was seriously injured or killed during the 10 months (Sept. 11 – June 24) of the recovery effort. And this actuarial fact speaks directly to the professionalism, expertise, maturity and measured response of all construction union and uniformed personnel, to their cooperation with each other, and their disciplined use of directions from well-trained FDNY safety chiefs and construction safety supervisors.