Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Notes from the Underground

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche. 278 pages. $25.00 To be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

TodayÕs anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center arrives with the usual round-the-clock TV coverage, special sections of the newspaper, and a plethora of books -- almost all of which are surely destined for the please-buy-me rack at Barnes & Noble by early spring. American Ground, William LangewiescheÕs meticulous account of the dismantling of the wreckage of Ground Zero, may not escape the same fate, but it's going to stay in print and it's going to be read for years to come, if only because it captures a vanishing event that (one hopes anyway) won't be repeated.

Like such writers as Tracy Kidder and John McPhee, Langewiesche is interested in how things work; how huge problems, such as pulling apart 1.5 million tons on wreckage, are solved, and how they change the people who solve them. Besides the enormity of the attack, Langewiesche observes the peculiarly American way it was met on the ground. In other countries, he writes, committees would have been formed to draft plans, which would be executed by the military. Here, the "learned committees were excluded, the soldiers relegated to the unhappy role of guarding the perimeter, and civilians in heavy machines simply rolled in and took on the unknown." The problems they encountered were unique in scale: the possible release of freon gas from the chiller plants, the cracking of a subterranean slurry wall that could cause the hole to flood. The people who undertake these and thousands of other daily problems associated with the wreckage find themselves transformed -- like the New York City fireman Sam Melisi, who would play the painful role of mediator when tensions rose between the firemen, the police force and New York City's Department of Design and Construction (DDC). His sudden moral authority "surprised and plagued him to the end; he did not think of himself as a leader, and in other circumstances he probably would not have been one." There is also Peter Rinaldi, the Port Authority engineer who knew the building firsthand and had narrowly escaped with his life in the 1993 bombing of the towers, and two top DDC officials, Ken Holden and Mike Burton -- the ex-punk establishment bureaucrat and the careerist lieutenant who served him -- whose steely relationship is exacerbated by their daily involvement at Ground Zero. These and others find themselves defined by their work and their role in history.

As both a former pilot and a hard-working reporter -- on the scene almost from the day it happened, he stayed until the last piece of wreckage was hauled away -- Langewiesche got close to all the right people and writes knowingly and interestingly about speed, impact, and after-effect. He describes in detail the attack and implosion, the myriad logistics, not to mention dangers, of sorting through the debris, and the way sudden horrible occurrences can test the ability of rule-oriented bureaucrats to make things up as they go along. He is as overwhelmed by the attack as anyone but, like the firemen and engineers he followed, he slowly, carefully, and patiently seeks to master it; to uncover the disaster piece by molten piece.

"The frustration was that you couldnÕt dislodge the debris by shooting it," Langewiesche writes. "Because of the bodies that lay there, you couldnÕt dynamite it either. Because of New YorkÕs sensitivity to noise and dust, you couldnÕt even use small demolition charges to fill dangerous cavities or bring down the skeletal walls. There was no choice but to cut and pull and unbuild the chaos one piece at a time." As the DDC's Ken Holden put it, life at Ground Zero was one of "Excavation, remains, recovery, removal -- repeat."

Events such as 9/11 breed any number of abstract thoughts and theories regarding the motives of Osama bin Laden and the American response, and I don't discount them. But part of the appeal of Langewiesche's book is that it deals up close with the known, the tangible, the (literally) concrete. In several thousand well-chosen words, it pulls into sharp focus all those pictures we've seen daily. It's a book about energy -- the kind the towers represented and released, as the author notes, but also the extraordinary kind it required. Serialized over the last three months in the Atlantic Monthly (on which this review is based) and slated for publication next month, American Ground is a first-class piece of reportage.

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