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American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center Hardcover – October 24, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Langewiesche had unrestricted access to Manhattan's Ground Zero during the post-September 11 cleanup, and his triptych of articles (originally published in the Atlantic Monthly) takes readers through what became known to its denizens as the Pile, from the moment of destruction to the departure of the last truckload of rubble from the ruins a little less than nine months later. He gives a calm, precise account of the air traffic controllers trying to understand what was happening to the hijacked planes and explains precisely how the towers collapsed. The stars of the rest of this story are people one doesn't usually read about: administrators, engineers and construction workers in charge of the cleanup-a process in which, as Langewiesche describes it, order emerged from chaos by the sheer force of will of those in charge. One such outsize personality is David Griffin, a demolition expert who drove up from North Carolina, bluffed his way onto the restricted site, and quickly wound up in a position of authority. There's also a frank account of the tensions between police and firefighters at Ground Zero. Most fascinating, though, Langewiesche takes readers right inside the smoking Pile, as he joins workers on dangerous underground expeditions to see whether the slurry walls that keep out the Hudson will hold, or whether freon might be leaking from underground refrigerators. This is a genuinely monumental story, told without melodrama, an intimate depiction of ordinary Americans reacting to grand-scale tragedy at their best-and sometimes their worst.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"The most thoughtful and original [9-11] book to appear so far is American Ground, William Langewiesche's meticulous description of the rescue effort at Ground Zero and the subsequent excavation of the 1.8 million tons of debris at the literal and emotional heart of this calamity. Langewiesche was granted almost unlimited access to the site and the rescue staff, and he made the most of the privilege."
-Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

"This is a genuinely monumental story, told without melodrama, an intimate depiction of ordinary Americans reacting to grand-scale tragedy."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"An extraordinary story . . . Langewiesche . . . was the only reporter granted total access to Ground Zero . . . He spent nine months there and emerged to write American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center . . . It is an amazing piece of journalism, full of colorful characters and astonishing scenes."
-The Washington Post

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press; 1st edition (October 24, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865475822
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865475823
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.7 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,297,256 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

58 of 72 people found the following review helpful By stackofbooks on October 4, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Langewiesche's book is a result of brilliant reporting and essentially tells us, as the title says, how the debris from the 9-11 tragedy was dealt with. He describes with clarity the utter chaos at the site and the noisy democracy that prevailed and that allowed a small organization called the DDC (Department of Design and Construction) to direct recovery efforts. He also details the personality clashes between the different factions at the site-an inevitable result of working under extreme, trying conditions.
Langewiesche's descriptions of the ruins (along with the wonderful pictures) are chilling: "Most of the rooms (of the Deutsche Bank dining area) had been unoccupied at the time of the attack, and were set for lunch-with fresh place mats, plates, and utensils, and sets of stemmed glasses, some of which had been capsized and broken by the pressure waves and lay now as they had fallen, like everything else here, under a feathery gauze of the Twin Towers' remains." His account of the last minutes of American Airlines Flight 11 and its last conversations with an air-traffic controller in Boston Center are eerie and scary.
The book describes the recovery effort and all the personalities who made it happen, wonderfully. I found myself admiring the soft-spoken demolition expert from North Carolina, David Griffin who, true to the American method, just showed up at the site, proved his merit, and got the job.
I was comforted in a strange sort of way to read that most of the steel recovered from the WTC site was sold as scrap and trucked away to countries such as China, who would put the steel to good use and recycle it. As Langewiesche puts it, "It was a strangely appropriate fate for these buildings, named for just this sort of trade."
In the end, 1.
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26 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
William Langewiesche's account of the clean-up after 9-11 may be one of the finest pieces of non-fiction i've ever read. Prior to this book, I was aware of the high quality of his writing. After reading his revealing and very human, and humane, account of the clean-up I'd say that his clarity admist a stunning array of chaos and sorrow is profound. I don't agree with the protests against this book. His criticisms of the firefighters, and others as well, are a very small part of the book and he points a fair and critical eye at all involved. His publisher and the Atlantic Monthly have been adamant that the fact checking in this book is of the highest level. I'm inclined to believe them. But the larger point is that this is book is also an incredible testament to the incredible efforts the rescue and clean-up personnel demonstrated at Ground Zero, or as they called it, "the Pile." His analysis of the defacto organization that sprung up from nowhere, and without anyone's actual approval, to run and lead the cleanup efforts is fascinating. The "on the fly" ingenuity that many of the engineers, construction workers and other onsite personnel display is in a word...inspiring. Please don't turn your back on this book because it doesn't paint everyone in the best light. The best reporting often doesn't. It's real, heartwrenching, brutally honest, celebratory and epic. William Langewiesche should be lauded for cataloging the best, and the worst, of our human nature and as American citizens.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By John G. Hilliard on December 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
What an interesting book this turned out to be. The author takes the reader through the rescue, recovery and clean up effort at the World Trade Center after the 9-11 attacks. I tend to like a book with a lot of facts and that is exactly what this book delivered. Interesting tid bits that an account based only on the attack or rescue just would not cover. He goes in depth into all aspects of the clean up from how the material was taken off the pile, transport to a landfill, and the sorting of the material at the landfill. The review of the management of the process was also well written. It takes a good author to make some of these mundane issues exciting and this author did it.
I think the most unexpected part of the book for me was the hard look he took at the actions of the firefighters during the clean up. It was not flattering and for the most part the negative items he reports are not very well known. As you read other reviews this particular item appears to elicit the most emotion. Overall this was a very interesting book. The detail was there and it was well written. My only complaint would be that it was only 200 pages - I would have liked even more detail.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Slokes VINE VOICE on July 26, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
William Langewiesche's "American Ground" reads like something Edward R. Murrow might have written, if he had been born on the planet Vulcan and beamed down to the site of the World Trade Center right after the 9-11 attacks. Emotionally detached, with a faint hint of contempt for the heavy passions the attacks unleashed, it's not a book of comfort or pride, but of stubborn facts, nervelessly related.

For that some praise its bravery. Others say it reeks of disrespect, especially toward the members of the Fire Department of New York whose energetic response to the WTC fires cost them hundreds of comrades. To me, it's a book about a hole with a hole, that being Langewiesche's unwillingness to deal with the emotions of 9-11.

Reading the reviews, one might think the entire book is about a fire truck loaded with looted blue jeans, or the last words by one of the flight attendants on a hijacked aircraft. "American Ground" only mentions these things in passing, focusing instead on the massive clean-up of the ruined WTC site, a leaky cofferdam with rickety steel beams, potential Freon gas leakage, and a sometimes chaotic command structure worsened at times by "tribal" issues regarding jurisdiction and the handling of human remains.

What Langewiesche doesn't write about is the suffering of widows, the national mourning, episodes of bravery right after the attacks, or even the other two planes hijacked that day. Its subtitle: "Unbuilding The World Trade Center", is what it's about, not a metaphor for demythologizing the 9-11 attacks but the actual demolition work around the ruins.

I think Langewiesche missed an opportunity his access provided him, to use the clean-up as a framing device for getting more into the larger story of 9-11.
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