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American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center Paperback – September 11, 2003

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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


The one book to read, if you're only reading one. (Detroit Free Press)

Slim but powerful . . . truth, unclouded by sentiment. (The New York Times Book Review)

One of the most compelling, dramatic, and uplifting pieces of writing you are likely ever to read. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Extraordinary . . . An amazing piece of journalism, full of colorful characters and astonishing scenes. (Peter Carlson, The Washington Post)

Says more about our essential character than a thousand maudlin tributes. (Boris Kachka, New York)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press; Reprint edition (September 11, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865476756
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865476752
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #404,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 71 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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18 of 21 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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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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20 of 26 people found the following review helpful By EFK on March 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I would agree with most of the reviews and say this is a very informative little book that hooks you after the first few pages. It may be a little short, but nevertheless American Ground is jammed with facts and observations that reveal a side of the World Trade Center disaster that most have not seen before. And as one can surmise from some of the reviews, parts of this book are controversial.
Most of the book deals with the day-to-day realities of cleaning up one of the most challenging disaster sites ever. Included are personal struggles like the effort required for "spelunking" deep into the ruins 6 stories below street level, which Langewiesche experienced firsthand. Also illuminated are some larger, site-wide problems including the threat posed by the massive tanks of Freon entombed in the far reaches of the ruins. In better times they served to cool the WTC, but during the clean up they threatened the lives of workers above. The nagging fear was that the odorless Freon would escape and worm its way up around the workers robbing them of oxygen quicker than they could run away. This was one of many dangers workers stoically accepted in order to get the job done.
In addition to the logistical aspects of the cleanup, Langewiesche does a great job animating for us the personalities that tackled the disaster with, as he postulates, a particularly American, individualistic, can-do attitude.
The book's controversy arises when Langewiesche unflinchingly examines behavioral issues at the site in what I found to be the most interesting parts of the book. He reveals the ugly tribalism that unpleasantly divided the rescue workers into mainly three groups: construction workers, police, and firemen.
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