North Point, 2003 revised edition of 2002 original, 218 pages, C$21.50 pb, ISBN 0-86547-675-6
The surprise about American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center isn’t that it presents a factual, generally unsentimental and highly informative description of the way the ruins of the World Trade Center were removed from downtown New York in the months following 9/11.
The surprise is that it was published in 2002. Even the revised paperback edition is dated 2003, a time during which, to non-American observers, much of the United States went violently insane and invaded a small country on a spurious “weapons of mass destruction” rationale. It took years for America to collectively calm down and generally acknowledge that delusion. Given the time lag between fantasy and acknowledgement, one would expect a sober account of traumatic events to take years to put together. Yet William Langewiesche was able to do so in mere months.
To do this, he gained access to the site even as authorities were still busy putting together a response plan. For weeks, Langewiesche was able to walk though the Ground Zero site, interview those who were involved in the effort and get answers from people in charge. His narrative describes how a response was assembled in the hours following the tragedy, in-between a destroyed section of downtown, people wanting to go forward with rescue efforts, investigators looking for clues in the debris, an environment filled with unstable rubble, multiple levels of overlapping authority and all of that set in one of the densest urban areas on Earth –basically, the worst imaginable combination of complications.
American Ground also describes the often-amazing story of what happened at the site long after the news channel stopped the round-the-clock coverage. How the containment basin nearly crumbled and flooded the area; how four construction companies were hurriedly contacted to provide services; how the debris were finally taken out of the area by barge, processed off-site, inspected multiple times for human remains, and ultimately sold to foreign buyers. Those who have always loved triumphant engineering stories will be amazed at the complexity of the effort and how people can rally behind a common cause in times of crises.
Little is said about 9/11 itself in American Ground, the subject matter carefully restrained to the engineering challenge of clearing out the debris from the area. It doesn’t really need to do anything more: readers will provide their emotional soundtrack. And yet, by being as clear as possible, but refusing to engage in drama, Langewiesche is able to faithfully represent the emotional charge of working at what was, after all, both a grave and a crime scene. It also allows him to present factual but unpleasant information on conflicts between various groups on people working on-site, some of which does not reflect very well on groups that had been, at the time, placed on a pedestal. NYFD firefighters are described as acting far more reverently when a body from their service is found in the wreckage; 9/11 widows are portrayed as emotional and unhelpful in meetings.
It’s not surprising for a circa-2011 reader to find out that the book raised a considerable amount of controversy in the two years after its release. The paperback edition of the book is recommended over the original hardcover for an after-word that describes some of the controversies. Extra fun can be found by looking at the book’s one-star reviews on amazon –the most ironic being a one-star review from “C. Pellegrino “timewalker””, aka Charles Pellegrino, whose professional reputation would be destroyed in 2010 in the fracas surrounding the recall of his book Last Train from Hiroshima. Much of the criticism is based on emotional disbelief: How can you say bad things about people involved in such an event? Years later, we’re readier to acknowledge that even good people can act badly in some circumstances, that some people’s anecdotal behaviour does not change the magnitude of a collective achievement and that the way New York regained its footing after 9/11 was just as extraordinary as the event itself. Langewiesche simply arrived to those conclusions long before his detractors.
So it is that ten years after 9/11, we can see more clearly how much of an achievement American Ground was at the time. It’s unusually honest, devoid of cheap jingoism, and mesmerizingly readable from beginning to end. As much of the then-chatter about 9/11 now reads as ridiculously overdone, American Ground remains just as compelling today. That it got published in 2002 is just as impressive as the content of the book itself.