Supplement No. 96 to Department Order No. 104

November 13, 2002


The Atlantic Monthly
77 North Washington Street
Boston, MA 02114

November 18, 2002

To the Editor:

Throughout American Ground, William Langewieshe attempts to substantiate unfounded myths—about the Fire Department, about the rescue operation, about what “really” happened at the World Trade Center—as cold hard facts.  And repeatedly, he fails.   

Most preposterous and saddening of all these attempts is his “jeans” story, in which Langewieshe definitively “concludes” that firefighters responding to the scene of the World Trade Center chose to loot jeans and stuff them into the cab of their truck rather than help save lives from the burning buildings.  It’s an unfounded accusation that unfortunately sets the tone for Langewiesche’s unabashed—and undeserved—attack on the Fire Department.  

Did it not occur to The Atlantic to extensively check the veracity of Langewiesche’s utterly absurd “conclusion” that jeans were stolen and placed into a fire truck before the South Tower fell, or his equally ridiculous assertion that firefighters were careless about civilian recoveries because they thought themselves “worthier”?  Did anyone at The Atlantic even think twice about printing and in turn endorsing conclusions so preposterous and entirely inconsistent with the facts?  I have trouble believing that The Atlantic adequately fact-checked Langewiesche’s piece when substantial evidence and other first-hand accounts of the very same incident lead to significantly different conclusions. 

The evidence which made it “hard to avoid the conclusion that…while hundreds of doomed firefighters had climbed through the wounded building, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely” is questionable at best.  Langewieshe cites as evidence the removal of a ladder truck from deep within the rubble of the South Tower; when “the hulk of the truck appeared, rather than containing bodies…its crew cab was filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from the Gap, a Trade Center store.”  That is the evidence upon which Langewieshe bases his absurd conclusion, and yet the facts of the day point to a very different, far more logical conclusion. 

It is a fact that the men from that truck—Ladder 4—were actually doing their jobs that day, for the bodies of Ladder 4 members were found near a South Tower elevator along with a Hurst tool that they, in their last moments of life, were using to extract the victims trapped inside.  It is a fact that Ladder 4, which was parked at street level near the command center established by the South Tower, was recovered from the B5 Level of the South Tower Parking Lot, well below street level.  It’s a fact that the lower floors of the South Tower were occupied by commercial space, and that the force of the building’s collapse spread debris from those commercial spaces—which included stores that sold pairs of jeans—throughout the larger pile of rubble.  And it is a fact that other vehicles caught within the collapse were also found with commercial debris blown inside them from the force of the falling building. 

There are at least five eyewitnesses to the recovery of Ladder 4 that attest to the accuracy of these facts and dispute Langewiesche’s version.  They include an FDNY recovery team leader, a grappler operator, a member of Local 14 working at the site, and two other FDNY members—a firefighter and a Battalion Chief—also working that night tour.  Langewieshe was perhaps unaware of, or chose to disregard these facts.  In this one instance of misrepresentation and inaccurate conclusion, Langewieshe clouds the credibility of his larger narrative. 

I find it equally disappointing that, in light of this evidence, The Atlantic has acknowledged neither Langewiesche’s specific errors nor the larger problem of dubious credibility that plagues all three parts of American Ground.  Rather than hold up the high standards of ethical journalism, The Atlantic, too, has instead chosen to propagate unsubstantiated myths.  

What, based upon Langewiesche’s faulty account and The Atlantic’s reluctance to reconcile it with the truth, are we to think?  That firefighters responding to the absolute horror before them dodged falling bodies to steal pairs of pants?   That firefighters proud to be a part of the recovery effort dug around civilians to solely seek out their own? 

Perhaps the simplest explanation is the best.  Now what’s simpler, that firefighters who live for the big fire and devote themselves to saving lives and property would defy their duties, their colleagues, and their command structure at the largest firefighting scene in New York City’s history to steal a few pairs of jeans, or that those firefighters died nobly that day, doing their jobs and working to save lives up until the very instant those towers collapsed? 

Langewieshe and The Atlantic should not have tarnished the memory of our City’s heroes with foolish, unfounded and absurd accusations.  Such absurdity degrades men who valiantly died trying to save lives.  Such absurdity insults countless others who devoted months to the dignified and respectful recovery of all victims of the attacks.  Such absurdity insults the truth. 



Nicholas Scoppetta

By Order of: Nicholas Scoppetta, Fire Commissioner

 Frank P. Cruthers, Chief of Department