Reporter Recalls 'Reckless Courage' At Ground Zero

Sep 11, 2011
Originally published on September 11, 2011 9:47 pm

It took journalist and author William Langewiesche several days to get to ground zero after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The airports were closed, and he lived in California.

But as soon as he arrived, he and his editors at the Atlantic Monthly began frantically trying to gain access to the highly restricted site where the Twin Towers had stood.

Langewiesche contacted the head of an obscure city agency, the Department of Design and Construction, Kenneth Holden.

"It just so happened that he was a reader of mine," Langewiesche tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "He brought me in."

For the next five months, Langewiesche had unrivaled access to the site and the complex web of emotions that motivated — and sometimes overtook — the people working there.

"Once I was in," he says, "I stayed in."

Self-Sorting Chaos

The result of Langewiesche's five months at ground zero was the longest piece of original reporting ever printed by the Atlantic: a three-part series that would later be published as a book, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.

In that reporting, Langewiesche describes how Holden and the other leaders of the DDC became the improbable leaders of the ground zero recovery and cleanup effort.

That's because, Langewiesche explains, the DDC was normally in charge of banal city tasks — repairing sewers, fixing overpasses, maintaining large buildings — that required heavy, powerful diesel equipment-movers.

"They had connections to the guys with the heavy equipment," he says. "And the weight of the steel, the weight of the ruins, required heavy equipment."

But it was a long time before anyone from the DDC — or anyone from any city agency — was officially in charge. The cleanup effort, chaotic at first, eventually evolved in a uniquely American way.

"The chaos was allowed to sort itself out, without the intervention of plans, without the intervention of FEMA and various bureaucracies," Langewiesche says. "That self-sorting process was the remarkable and creative and courageous — and I would say also, very American — thing that happened."

'It Was A Battlefield'

There were no rules inside the confines of ground zero, Langewiesche says.

When he wrote about looting — not just by New Yorkers, but by police and firefighters — he says he did so without judgment.

"This was a battlefield," he says. "Looting goes on on every battlefield. The rules didn't apply. And the fact that they didn't apply was one of the wonderful things about what happened there — invention, creation, courage."

Cleanup workers themselves were rebellious. Almost no one wore respirators, Langewiesche says, except in the most extreme conditions.

"They didn't put them on, and I didn't either," he says. "And the reason was — it was sort of necessary in a weird way. It wasn't self-sacrificial. But there had to be this kind of reckless courage, even if it was nonsensical, that was part of the beauty."

The Utility of Public Grief

There are things Langewiesche saw at ground zero he did not write about.

"The one thing I didn't write about — and I never do write about — was the grief, occasionally the family members, who had lost people, that I saw," he says.

In some cases, Langewiesche says, he was very close to them. "I took these family members around to show them what was going on in terms of the physical work being done."

Those family members, he says, suffered from "deep, deep grief. The kind of grief that is not always strong, but everlasting. I did not write about that, because I think that's a private matter. It would have been a violation of these people to write about their grief."

Ten years after he met those survivors, Langewiesche warns this anniversary week of remembrances, memorials and ceremonies could border on 'wallowing.'

"I believe that grief needs to be private," he says. "That doesn't mean that help can't be given to those who are grieving — it should be given. But you don't make a spectacle out of it. You don't stand up as a politician and wallow in it. And as the media, you don't wallow in it. It's not to deny the tragedy. It's to question the utility of public grief."

Did Sept. 11 Change American Forever?

"Forever is a big word," Langewiesche says. Sept. 11 "certainly did change America, and I was not aware enough of it when I was [at ground zero]. I was so wrapped up in the day-to-day."

That day-to-day cooperation and collaboration, he says, was like "the blossoming of something very beautiful.

"But the larger currents," he continues, "have been hugely self-destructive. One war fought in the wrong way. One war that should never have been. Other wars probably coming as a result. The construction of huge and expensive security bureaucracies. Problems with legal conduct both in war and at home.

"With the current president coming in — finding really these same policies pursued?" he asks. "It seems to indicate that these self-destructive impulses are not a question of the left or the right or who's in charge, but something very worrisome about the United States as a whole. Who we are, what are doing to ourselves."

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GUY RAZ, Host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Journalist and author William Langewiesche was asleep at home in Northern California on the morning of September 11, 2001.

WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: My wife woke me up actually and said, they're bombing New York. I said, who is? And she said, I don't know. I said, is it nuclear? She said she didn't know. And very quickly, of course, I was tuned in.

RAZ: At the time, Langewiesche was working for the Atlantic Monthly. He decided he needed to get to New York as soon as possible, and he made it there three days later. When he arrived, he got in touch with the head of an obscure city agency. It's called the Department of Design and Construction, and it happened that that agency was put in charge of the recovery effort at ground zero. The head off DDC, as it's known, was a man named Kenneth Holden.

LANGEWIESCHE: It just so happened that he was a reader of mine. And after I contacted him, he brought me in. And once I was in, I stayed in, and was there for about - I think about five months - pretty much full time, seven days a week. There were a couple of occasions when I left to pursue certain angles for a couple of days. But pretty much, I was there the whole time.

RAZ: William Langewiesche wrote about those five months of unrivaled access to ground zero for the Atlantic, in a three-part series called "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." It was the longest piece of original reporting ever printed by the magazine. It was later published as a book. And in it, William Langewiesche describes how the people who ran that small city agency, the DDC, became ground zero's most improbable leaders.

LANGEWIESCHE: It turned out that they were really effective responders. And the reason was they had connections to the guys with the heavy equipment. And the weight of the steel, the weight of the ruins, required heavy equipment, at first, again, to try to find people who were alive. There was no hierarchy. They weren't in charge - not for a long time. But they were very effective responders.

And what it was, was that there was total chaos in the beginning. And the chaos was allowed, for various reasons, to continue and to sort itself out without the intervention of plans, without the intervention of FEMA and various bureaucracies. And that self-sorting process was only possible because of the perimeter wall that was set up around it. It was allowed to be itself, in that secret inner world.

I did not expect it, but what I saw there was a beautiful expression of the old American idea of courage, creativity, lack of hierarchy - Ameritocracy in the biggest way.

RAZ: In your reporting, you wrote about a lot of things that people didn't want to hear at the time: looting by firefighters, these territorial disputes between the police and the firefighters, and access to the site, and all of these emotional dynamics at work, some people who really weren't heroes. Was that difficult for you to do?

LANGEWIESCHE: No. My job is to speak and to observe, and then to speak or to write honestly. When I wrote about certain aspects of the otherwise wonderful thing that was happening there, I tried to write about it from a real point of view, meaning there was no - I was not at all disapproving - in fact, I tried to make it clear that I wasn't judging, and I still don't judge that act. This was a battlefield, and looting goes on on every battlefield. The rules didn't apply. And the fact that they didn't apply was one of the wonderful things about what happened there - invention, creation, courage.

RAZ: This might be an odd question, or maybe not, but - I mean, you were there for five months, and you were in this environment breathing in a lot of the things around you. And we've heard, of course, from some rescue workers who have had health problems. Did you have any - have there been any effects of that? Have you experienced any of that?

LANGEWIESCHE: No. I haven't. Maybe I will in the future. I kind of doubt it. You know, we all had respirators from the very beginning. And there were - the supplies (unintelligible) America. I mean, the supplies poured in in abundance. They had to set up a trucking operation to get the stuff out, it was coming in so much. But people didn't use the respirators for a long time, except on some occasions - the most extreme smoke and dust underground.

But pretty much, people had the respirators. They were slung around their necks, and they didn't put them on, and I didn't either. And the reason was it was sort of necessary in a weird way. It wasn't self-sacrificial. But there had to be this kind of reckless courage, even if it was nonsensical, that was part of the beauty.

RAZ: There are things that you saw, of course, many things that you saw, that you didn't write about.

LANGEWIESCHE: Well, there were many things. It was such a sprawling story, first of all, that even one has to choose. The one thing that I didn't write about and I never do write about was the grief, occasionally, of the family members who had lost people that I saw and the fact that I was very close to because, in some cases, I took these family members around to show them what was going on in terms of the physical work being done. And, you know, deep, deep grief. The kind of grief that is not only strong, but everlasting. I did not write about that because I think that's a private matter, and it would've been a violation of these people to write about their grief.

RAZ: Shortly after these articles were published, as a book, you were asked about your thoughts on a memorial. And you - I think you said that you didn't feel like there needed to be one. And actually, you almost warned against wallowing, as you said, in the events of 9/11. And yet here, of course, we are 10 years on, and we are commemorating it with memorials and such. Do you feel like it's appropriate?

LANGEWIESCHE: Well, I was never against memorials. I mean, if people want to have a memorial, I mean, it's fine. I mean, maybe it's helpful to some people. That was never an issue for me. It is more the wallowing in grief that was, and is, an issue for me. I believe that grief needs to be private, and that doesn't mean that help can't be given to those who are grieving. It should be given.

LANGEWIESCHE: But you don't make a spectacle out of it. You don't stand up as a politician and wallow in it. And as the media, you don't wallow in it - or shouldn't. It's not to deny the tragedy; it's to question the utility of public grief.

RAZ: You often hear people say, 9/11 changed America forever. Do you think that's true?

LANGEWIESCHE: Forever is a big word. 9/11 certainly did change America, and I was not aware enough of it when I was there because I was so, you know, wrapped up in the day-to-day. And looking, by the way, at this like a blossoming of something very beautiful. But the larger currents have been hugely self-destructive. One war fought in the wrong way, one war that should never have been, other wars, probably coming as a result. The construction of huge and expensive security bureaucracies, problems with legal conduct - both in war and at home.

Then, with the current president coming in, I'm finding, really, the same policies being pursued. It seems to indicate that these self-destructive impulses are not a question of the left or the right, or who's in charge, but something very worrisome about the United States as a whole, who we are, what we are doing to ourselves and what we continue to do to ourselves. But as far as the U.S. being changed forever, I don't know.

RAZ: That's William Langewiesche. His account of the ground zero recovery effort is called "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." He spoke to me from Paris. William, thank you.

LANGEWIESCHE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.