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57 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating insights
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...
Published on October 4, 2002 by stackofbooks

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Down In The Hole
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...
Published on July 26, 2008 by Slokes


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57 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating insights, October 4, 2002
By 
stackofbooks "stackofbooks" (Walpole, MA United States) - See all my reviews
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, 1.5 million tons of debris was hauled away from the World Trade Center site. The scale alone is daunting enough. That the recovery effort was carried out efficiently and with respect for the dead, is a triumph in an otherwise trying time. Langewiesche's book pays well-deserved homage to the people and the institutions that made it happen.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Controversial View of the Fire Department, December 23, 2002
By 
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
5.0 out of 5 stars All sides of the tradegy revealed...know them all., November 27, 2002
By A Customer
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Down In The Hole, July 26, 2008
By 
Slokes (Greenwich, CT USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (Paperback)
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 Amazon.com 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. To me, the clean-up of the World Trade Center by itself is just not that gripping. Langewiesche writes with energy and an eye for detail, but he doesn't seem to get much past the four or five guys in charge of the clean-up work, civil servants and construction guys of commendable energy but minimal charisma or vision.

To Langewiesche's firefighter critics, the anger of their response is something "American Ground" seems to prefigure in its account of how FDNY personnel made themselves unpopular with others at the clean-up site by languishing in bitter recrimination:

"Some had lost family when the Trade Center fell, and nearly all had lost friends. Their bereavement was real. Still, for nearly two months they had let their collective emotions run unchecked and they had been indulged and encouraged in this by society at large - the presumption being something like: 'It helps to cry.'"

For his part, Langewiesche is having none of it. It's probably this as much as that story about the fire truck with the jeans that contributes to the animus. Detractors might have more of a case if they didn't write with the same sense of entitlement-through-tragedy that Langewiesche notes clouded judgments and colored actions at the WTC site.

But Langewiesche's impartial tone lacks for something, too, more now than when it was first published in 2002, when emotions were so raw and overpowering that it was a relief reading a 9-11 account without them. Now it reads as a story about a giant hole, and the day-to-day decisions that were made to keep things running at a complicated worksite. The New York Times called the book "coldblooded" - cool-blooded might be a better term. But it's disengaging read from this remove in time, and I suspect it will be less essential reading in years to come.
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20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delivers on many levels, March 6, 2003
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. But more controversially, he examines the mythology of heroism that surrounded New York Firemen after 9/11, and as is usually the case with myths, the perception and the reality do not coincide.
Langewiesche offers what I thought to be strong anecdotal and circumstantial evidence suggesting that workers of all types, including firemen, routinely looted the WTC site. One such story is of the recovery of a fire truck buried with dozens of GAP jeans piled neatly by size order in the cab. This would suggest that some firemen looted even before the collapse of the first tower. If this story is true, it's fairly damning (a previous reviewer with a brother in law in the FDNY suggests it's not). Since Langewiesche had access to the highest authorities at the site, he probably corroborated this and other stories with someone in the know, which would lead me to believe that at least a version of this story is probably true. In addition, Langewiesche is a respected journalist (the reason he was given full access to the site in the first place), which would make me doubt he had an ax to grind or was just trying to be sensational.
With these accounts and others like the "firemen's riot" (you'll have to read the book for that one) Langewiesche brings the hero worship surrounding the firemen back down to earth. I think an important distinction to keep in mind here is that Langewiesche does not say the firemen are not brave or noble, but rather they are not the perfect embodiment of bravery or nobility that the surrounding idolatry may suggest. In other words: the mythology of fireman heroism is not 100% false, but rather it's just not 100% true. They're human like the rest of us---prone to weakness.
Implicit in Langewiesche's analysis is that mythology is not as dangerous to those distanced from it, but more invasive for those at the center---living the myth. A similar process occurs when movie stars develop distorted views of themselves because they are constantly told how they are special. Myth influences their behavior. Likewise, some firemen were perceived to have developed an inflated sense of entitlement. Other workers said the tight FDNY community recoiled into a narcissism of grief so that their anguish and concerns superceded the needs and suffering of the whole. Some complained that firemen treated non-FDNY dead with a hasty, "bag'em and tag'em" attitude while giving the utmost respect and attention to their own dead. And Langewiesche suspects that the broad focus on FDNY loses made it harder for firemen to move through the grieving process because the attention led them to indulge their emotions longer than was needed and caused them to lose some of their objectivity. All of this undermined the clean up effort making it more difficult than was necessary.
(If I may indulge myself for just a little. . .Reading this book while my country is on the verge of waging war, I can't help extending this line of analysis to the current stirrings of American Nationalism. Similar to how a number of firemen internalized the mythology surrounding them, nationalistic myths have subtly shaped the opinions of many Americans. Many are convinced that America can do no wrong---it may make mistakes, they say, but its intentions are always pure. They seemingly are unable or unwilling to put down the myths they filter the world through. Similar to the hero worship, it's not that American foreign policy is 100% unjust; rather it's not 100% just. This might seem obvious, but many people have a really hard time acknowledging any injustice or immorality in American foreign policy or how it may do more to cause many problems we face today rather than solve them. I'd love to go on, but Ill have to find a book on this subject and go nuts in my review.)
Overall, American Ground delivers unique information on several levels. With absorbing anecdotes, interesting factoids about 9/11 itself and the cleanup, and penetrating analysis of some large issues---all delivered with good writing---Langewiesche gives us a good read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Langewiesche Scores Again, October 24, 2002
By 
Arzurama (Seattle, WA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (Paperback)
I have been a devoted fan of this journalist since he wrote "Cutting for Sign" and "Sahara Unveiled." This is not a reporter who envisions himself as a poet or a celebrity. Langewiesche doesn't hold back, and he seemingly doesn't care if his subjects like him at the end of the day. Which is why he earned the scorn of sycophants like Michiko Kakutani at the NYTimes, who called this work "coldblooded." If only more journalists were this "coldblooded," perhaps we could once again believe in the media! Read this book. It's a breath of fresh air after all the sanctimonious, self-indulgent wallowing in victimization we've endured. Then, go directly to his books I mentioned above and find out why this guy is the real deal.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, September 8, 2004
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This review is from: American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (Paperback)
There have been many books published in the last three yers about the building of the WTC, the attack of 9/11, the collapse of the building, the architecture, the decisions, the rebuilding, and so forth, but only one book about what went on at the site immediately following the collapse of the towers.

William Langewiesche is an excellent essayist and reporter, and managed to both situate himself in the middle of the rebuilding- the only writer to do so- and to be a neutral enough observer that he was able to tell the story from all perspectives. The public story- the heroism of the firefighters and police, the harmony on the site- dosn't quite hold up in Langewiesche's telling. We see internecine fighting, looting, distrust, and outright hostilkity between different groups competing for control of the site and for glory in the minds of the public.

But we also see an extraordinary effort by almost all concerned, and an operation in which public and private organizations came together to do an amazing job of cleaning up the site in record time. We also see the City of New York rising to the challange, brushing off Federal attempts to control the site, knowing that the city has more experience as disaster recovery and cleanup in its numerous contractors and building officials than the whole of FEMA. City officials and contractors came together and mapped out strategies and divided up work without waiting for approval from higher up authorities.

An excellent piece of reporting and interpreting. Highly recommended.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Non-fiction Page-burner, April 10, 2004
This review is from: American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (Paperback)
This is witten with passion and intimacy and the writing style is superb. I read this initially in the Atlantic Monthly which suffered only from its serialization. Took the book on a cruise expecting a long slow read but I couldn't put it down. More than any account I've read, this is closest to healing the wounded American psyche. The author juxtaposes background on hijackers, victims on the planes and in the Towers as well as the many incredible stories of heroes and family survivors. Great context even for the dark side of the perps and heroes. A must for your library and future generations to understand the nature of this watershed event in human history.
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25 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Around, above, and even below Ground Zero, November 9, 2002
"American Ground" is indeed one of the best of the flood of books that have come out since the terrorist outrages of 9/11/01, and William Langewiesche tells his story with eloquent prose and the experience of having been the only journalist allowed unrestricted access to Ground Zero. His description of an expedition underground to locate and examine the remains of the WTC's air conditioning plant is utterly fascinating, a kind of archaeology of ruins. Langewiesche's honesty is refreshing too, and apparently upsetting to the few 1 star reviews you'll see below; no, not everyone at the site was a hero, and while some heroes were dying, some losers were looting (anyone who's worked an airplane crash with the NTSB will tell you that the crash site is thoroughly looted before they arrive - this is unfortunately common "human" behavior even in the face of tragedy).
My one gripe about the book is the fact that what's here is basically what was in his three-part series in the "Atlantic Monthly." Considering that Langewiesche was at the site for months, 205 undersized pages seems awfully succinct. I think most readers also would have preferred to pay a few more bucks and have some illustrations included.
Langewiesche's final scene of the book has the steel from the WTC being chopped up and dumped into the hold of a rusting ship to be sent oversas as scrap. To send the steel of these buildings to be turned into cans and possibly weapons to be aimed back at us is the ultimate irony. The steel should have been saved, carefully studied (the hurried clearance of the site and ensuing destruction of the evidence has always seemed foolish to me), and then it should have been melted down and gone into an aircraft carrier. THAT should have been the fate of the WTC's superb steel, but once again America sells her heritage for a mess of pottage. Shame.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Leaders Everywhere, October 24, 2002
By 
As the senior writer for an online leadership magazine, I was particularly struck with the "situational leaders" in Langwiesche's book. Over and over he stresses that who you were and what you'd done didn't matter on The Pile. What counted was what you could contribute right now. Some leaders rose to prominence with one set of circumstances and sank when circumstances changed. Others remained leaders by growing and moving with the changes.
Langwiesche is free of the maudlin emotionalism that has characterized so much of the 9/11 writing, but he presents a much more inspiring vision of what Americans can rise to when the opportunity is thrust upon them.
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American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center
American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche (Paperback - September 11, 2003)
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