Selected as one of the best books of 2002 by The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Sun-Times
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.
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.