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American Ground By William Langewiesche

Trade Center analysis: journalism at its finest

Sunday, November 17, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

By now, just more than a year after thousands of people were killed in the terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center, I imagine there is a pile of Sept. 11 screenplays in Hollywood as high as the doomed Twin Towers.

A lot of paper could have been saved if the writers had used William Langewiesche's no-nonsense account of the attack and its aftermath.

Despite its odd subtitle -- "Unbuilding the World Trade Center" -- his book, the collected series of articles he wrote for Atlantic Monthly, reads like a movie script, with heroes and villains, moving dialogue, dramatic scenes and a kicker of an ending.


American Ground

By William Langewiesche

North Point Press ($22)


While much has been made of Langewiesche's wide-ranging and rare access to the devastated site near Wall Street, what distinguishes his account is its pure journalism.

This is the kind of clear-eyed reporting and strong writing that fell out of favor with the "new journalism" excesses of the Tom Wolfe school. It seems fresh and original today because it's so seldom that we encounter reporting at its most elemental.

Occasionally, Langewiesche slips in his own unsolicited views, but mostly he lets the principals do the talking. He understands that the foundation of any good story is the personalities, real human beings, the "actors."

It was easy to spot them -- Mike Burton and Ken Holden -- two New York City bureaucrats who, hours after the towers fell, rose to the impossible occasion of dealing with a pile of 1.5 million tons of rubble.

They both worked for a little-known municipal agency, the Department of Design and Construction. More important, they were both New Yorkers who saw at once that the responsibility for dealing with the disaster was the city's.

"None of us wondered, 'Should we contact the state? Should we contact the feds?...' It was just 'We've got a disaster here. Let's fix it,' " Holden said.

The cleanup was finished in eight months, leaving a clear stretch of Lower Manhattan where seven buildings once stood, two of them 110 stories high. No one was killed or seriously hurt in the project, an amazing figure amid so much death.

Only 18 survivors were found in the wreckage, 12 of them New York firefighters. Because more than 300 of their own perished Sept. 11, the firefighters treated the site, or "pile" as it came to be called, with a proprietary interest.

Their role in the project became laden with controversy, a topic Langewiesche handles without sentimentality. He takes no side but provides both the heroism and the venality -- one firetruck pulled from the debris was full of jeans looted from a Gap store.

Langewiesche has paid the price for his objective treatment of the behavior at the pile where on Nov. 2, 2001, firefighters rioted and battled the city's police. Later, FDNY families accused the city of dumping the remains of their loved ones at the Fresh Kills disposal site.

Langewiesche rejects their claims and has drawn the ire of FDNY families and other New Yorkers.

The rest of us, who watched the scenes of death and destruction in our untouched inland cities, far from the sweat and the emotions of that terrible time, can read this account with less bias but no less emotion.

Extraordinary events demand not only extraordinary responses, which was the case at the WTC site, but also an objective witness who can testify with the facts, not prejudice.

That kind of testimony is Langewiesche's singular accomplishment.

Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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