Author stirs squabble with tale of WTC cleanup
Nov. 28, 2002 12:38 PM

NEW YORK - More than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, journalist and author William Langewiesche has discovered how volatile emotions remain over the firefighters killed in the World Trade Center as his new book on the cleanup effort draws a fierce public backlash.

Working with exclusive, unfettered access to the site for months, Langewiesche wrote a gritty book about the massive cleanup that challenges the lionization of firefighters while praising all the workers who cleared the site, saying they had little time to mourn over the shocking scope of death and devastation.

In his book published last month, ''American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center,'' Atlantic Monthly magazine correspondent Langewiesche said he tried to depict in total honesty the story of what he saw take place in the chaotic, emotional operation amid millions of tons of debris.

''What I saw was much more interesting and hopeful than the propaganda. I was writing what I saw in a conversation with my readers in utter frankness,'' Langewiesche said in an interview.

Langewiesche, a professional pilot turned journalist, depicts in stark detail the drama -- including fisticuffs between police and firemen -- and the daunting engineering challenges of removing rubble safely from the 16-acre site that became known as ''the pile.''


But his account has stirred a storm of criticism.

It includes allegations that firefighters, who lost 343 of their own after the soaring towers collapsed, looted jeans from a Gap store before the buildings fell. He also describes how they favored honoring the remains of firefighters before those of police officers or civilians.

Firefighters and their supporters have unleashed a torrent of outrage against Langeweische's book, originally a 60,000-word, three-part series in the Atlantic Monthly, even protesting at a recent book signing in New York.

He said the outcry comes from even trying to portray an alternative to the heroic view of fallen firefighters widely embraced after the attacks.

''That emotion has been heavily indulged in the United States, and not to indulge it is to invite attack,'' he said.

Rhonda Roland Shearer, the widow of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, an artist and trade center volunteer, has led the charge against Langewiesche's reporting with the backing of senior fire and police officials.

Taken from depositions she has collected from those who worked at the site, Shearer has published online a rebuttal of some facts in the article and demanded the book be recalled.

The biggest controversy surrounds Langewiesche's description of workers finding new blue jeans in one fire engine being dug out of the rubble, suggesting looting began even before the towers fell.

The New York City Fire Department recently fired off a letter to the Atlantic Monthly calling that anecdote inaccurate and saying Langewiesche tries to ''substantiate unfounded myths'' and that his facts were not adequately verified.

''Langewiesche and The Atlantic should not have tarnished the memory of our city's heroes with foolish, unfounded and absurd accusations,'' the letter said.

Both the magazine and Langewiesche have steadfastly stood behind the article. The writer said the article's editing included a ''tortuous'' five-month fact-checking process and that the accusations being leveled were ''ridiculous.''

At a book signing in Manhattan this month, about 100 firefighters and others protested Langewiesche's book, including Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. Gorman called the journalist ''a disgrace to his profession.''

Langewiesche writes that the hero-worshiping of firefighters, combined with their grief, worked like a ''low-grade narcotic. It did not intoxicate them, but it skewed their view.''

He contends that the self-absorption of the firefighters, which even some of them were ashamed of, led to an increasingly tribal view among the workers, police and others.

''The image of a tragic hero is only something that could be sustained from a distance,'' he told Reuters.


Langewiesche gained full access to the trade center site, which was restricted for most journalists, and to meetings and files pertaining to the cleanup after he faxed a request to Kenneth Holden, the New York official heading the cleanup effort, who turned out to be a fan of Langewiesche's writing.

Langewiesche's tale begins with the near chaos that reigned among the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center even a few days after the hijacked planes struck, as New York struggled to organize a massive rescue and cleanup operation.

Within that caldron of construction workers, firemen and others all doing their best to hunt for survivors and begin clearing the mountainous 1.5 million tons of steel and debris, a typically American can-do attitude emerged, reflecting the country's strengths at a time of extreme stress, he said.

Workers manning giant diesel excavators seized the initiative to clear away the twisted and torn remnants of the obliterated skyscrapers where nearly 3,000 people were killed, taking risks and eschewing hierarchy to get the job done.

''For the first few months, it was raw ground in which the unrehearsed was happening,'' Langewiesche said. ''In America we have this ideology of individualism. Here I saw it actually happening.''

Despite the conflict and tension, those working day in and day out on ''the pile'' never let the heated emotions and discord get in the way of finishing the huge task.

The cleanup was wrapped up in eight months, far quicker than anyone imagined in the early days when it appeared a year or more would be needed. And for all the dangers clearing the site, there was not a single fatality in the cleanup.

''All of these people found themselves in a world of chaos, and they rose to meet that challenge time and time again,'' he said. ''They rose to the occasion and did it right.''