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American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center Paperback – September 11, 2003
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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Within days after September 11, 2001, William Langewiesche had secured unique, unrestricted, round-the-clock access to the World Trade Center site. American Ground is a tour of this intense, ephemeral world and those who improvised the recovery effort day by day, and in the process reinvented themselves, discovering unknown strengths and weaknesses. In all of its aspects--emotionalism, impulsiveness, opportunism, territoriality, resourcefulness, and fundamental, cacophonous democracy--Langewiesche reveals the unbuilding to be uniquely American and oddly inspiring, a portrait of resilience and ingenuity in the face of disaster.
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Actually, I am a recently retired firefighter. I was unable to read the literature that came out of that tragic day while I was still on the job. It was still too raw. Of course William Langewiesche would say that was a fault. That I was hanging on to it for too long. But then again, he never really understood the Firefighters. Or the members of the PAPD or the NYPD or the Iron Workers. But he did seem to understand those running the unbuilding, and as he so eloquently described in the Afterword, many of them had trouble going back to their normal jobs after it was over. They had tackled an overwhelming task and had accomplished it in less than a year. Against unbelievable odds. They were part of something bigger than themselves and they felt rightfully proud of their accomplishment. And so did he.
I don't want to try to speak for the Police Officers of the Port Authority or the City of New York. And I don't want to try to speak for the Iron Workers and other demolition experts on site. But I want to thank each and every one of them for months of incredible effort to help search for the victims. From the first day to the last.
As for the Firefighters, and what William Langewiesche didn't get, we never wanted special treatment. We didn't want overtime. WE didn't want to be called hero's. We didn't want it to go on a day longer than was necessary. We didn't feel sorry to go back to our normal jobs. For the Firefighters, the whole thing was a nightmare. Just as for the families and loved ones of the nearly 3,000 victims who perished; it was all a nightmare.
What William Langewiesche never understood was that we rushed into that building with the hopes of saving as many lives as possible. Like every fire and emergency that we respond to. He seems to think that because many of us did not know that the buildings were going to collapse, that somehow that takes away from the dedication exhibited by the response. He relates that because Cantor Fitzgerald lost more members of their organization than the FDNY, that somehow that diminishes the losses of the FDNY. No, it made us want to find the victims of Cantor that much more.
What William Langewiesche didn't get was that for the twenty five years leading up to the World Trade Center, in every fire where a Firefighter lost his or her life, there were no civilian casualties. Not one civilian death. And no matter what happened we always found our own and carried them out of the rubble back to their grieving families. After September 11th, we were faced with the unthinkable. Thousands of civilians were missing. And over a hundred Police Officers were missing. And over three hundred Firefighters. We needed a fresh FDNY to respond to bail us out. But it didn't exist anymore. So we did our best.
One perfect example of how William Langewiesche, who was at the site from the beginning to the end, missed what the Firefighters were doing is the story of Pasquale Buzzelli. Pasquale Buzzelli was a staff engineer for the Port Authority. Only eighteen people were taken out of the buildings alive after they collapsed, and he was one of them.
William Langewiesche relates how Pasquale Buzzelli was climbing down a stairwell of the North Tower when the building collapsed. As he regained consciousness he found himself on an unstable slab of concrete several stories above street level. The slab teetered fifteen feet above jagged concrete and twisted steel rubble. He was disoriented and in pain. The slab was surrounded by dust and smoke. He could hear the crackling sound of a fire somewhere behind him and the sound grew louder and the heat increased, although Pasquale Buzzelli could not see the fire from where he was perched. Suddenly a Firefighter appeared below him and Pasquale called out for help. The heat was growing more intense and the Firefighter asked if he needed a rope. Pasquale said he needed more than that to escape. The Firefighter assessed the situation and then left, saying he would be back.
William Langewiesche writes that the heat was getting worse and that Pasquale was desperate "when, strangely, just as suddenly as the fire had grown, it subsided and died." Then the Firefighter reappeared. He was joined by other Firefighters who climbed up and over his position, climbing through dangerous terrain, and finally climbed down to the concrete slab that Pasquale lay on. The Firefighters fashioned a rope sling and lowered him and eventually carried him to safety in a stokes basket.
Except the fire didn't just "strangely subside". The Firefighters put it out. They stretched a hose from God knows where and they extinguished the fire.
Its the first thing Firefighters do when someone is trapped. Get them away from the fire or get the fire away from them. But William Langewiesche doesn't know that. He's not a Firefighter. But he is a journalist. A well respected journalist. And I have to wonder why he didn't try to learn what the Firefighters were actually doing.
He was so intent on not calling anyone a hero, that he forgot to maintain an open mind about many of the people working at the site. The construction workers and Iron Workers and Port Authority Police and NYPD and the Sanitation Workers and truck drivers and tug boat Captains and nurses and doctors and countless others who performed heroically. William Langewiesche just couldn't see it. He had an almost myopic focus on the tremendous efforts of the engineers. And the work the engineers did was amazing. But he missed the rest.
All I really know are the Firefighters. And I would like to let William Langewiesche know that as far as we were concerned, once the attacks occurred we were not going to leave that American ground until we brought all the victims home, civilian; law enforcement; firefighter. We always considered our mission to be first the rescue, and then the recovery of the victims. All the victims. And we failed in that effort. And that's why it's still too raw to think about if you're an active duty Firefighter. And that's why it took fourteen years for me to finally read your book.
The Firefighters never considered the World Trade Center to be a demolition site, or a deconstruction site, or some kind of unbuilding project. We always considered it to be hallowed ground. And I pray William Langewiesche doesn't think that is a cliche, or naive. We just felt a moral obligation to remove the remains of every person that we possibly could.
William Langewiesche describes a confrontation that occurred on November 2, 2001 between Mayor Giuliani and the FDNY. The Mayor wanted to clean up the site. He wanted to do it quickly. To turn it over to the developers. To allow the rebuilding to begin. The Firefighters protested. They argued that too many victims were still buried. That it would be immoral to tear apart the debris without a dignified and careful search. The Firefighters prevailed. And for the next six months the Iron Workers and PAPD and NYPD and the FDNY among many others continued the search for remains.
I Congratulate William Langewiesche on the access they granted you. And I congratulate you on a well written account. I only wish you had been more objective and more well informed in your reporting. And I only wish you didn't feel compelled to speak badly about the people who were faced with an impossible task and who demonstrated some of the most courageous behavior that we flawed human beings are capable of. And as you say, maybe one day someone else will write a more definitive account of what actually happened that day and in the weeks and months that followed.