Thursday, September 8, 2011

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center

When I found out about that the Twin Towers had been hit I was in form 4 (grade 10) English A class at St. Joseph's Convent in Saint Lucia. I was thousands of miles away, and I didn't really understand what my teacher was talking about. Admittedly, I couldn't even picture the World Trade Center. When I got home that day, I watched the planes hit and the smoke unfurl and the towers collapse over and over again. It was so beyond what I thought was possible that I couldn't process it. At that moment, on the little Caribbean island we were living on, I had no real idea of what it meant. Fast forward a decade and all of that sounds naive – 9/11 changed everything, and when we moved back to Canada a year after it happened, I started to realize it. The commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11 is coming up, and the media coverage started weeks ago. It seems like an impossible task to quantify what 9/11 meant (and continues to mean), but with New York about to open Ground Zero to the public, understanding how the Twin Towers were taken down seems like an important place to start when looking for renewal.

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center is comprised of the three long articles William Langewiesche wrote for The Atlantic Monthly about his time on "the pile." Langewiesche went to the site of the World Trade Center and within days of the attack managed to get himself unprecedented access to the site and everyone on it. He spent the next several months with the rescue workers, city planners, and unbuilders to document what happened at Ground Zero after the buildings the fell. For the life of me, I cannot begin to imagine how he wrangled all his notes into a book barely more than 200 pages, but if you read one book about 9/11, I would recommend it be this one.

Langewiesche's focus in American Ground is the nuts and bolts, gritty, dirty job of dismantling what was left of the WTC after the towers fell. And there was a lot left. Besides the rubble and debris (and bodies), that was strewn over the ground, parts of the towers remained standing precariously. The towers also extended for several layers underground, and the stress and strain on the structure of the subway tunnel, underground parking, and mall also needed to be sorted out to ensure what was going on above ground wasn't going to collapse through a weak spot. It's complicated, and by all rights, should be boring, but Langewiesche takes us not only into the work being done on the pile but also lives of the people doing it.

American Ground is not a sentimental book, but neither is it detached, and Langewiesche doesn't shy away from telling incredible stories of survival or devastating stories of loss. The thing is, he works the personal stories into his technical narrative in a way that balances clinical considerations with wrought emotions – for example, his detailed explanation of why the planes caused the towers to crumble is interspersed with first-hand accounts of what it was like to be in the tower, how it felt, and how people got out. Similarly, when he spends time with the men who are trying to figure out where to move the debris to, or the men driving the bulldozers around the pile, Langewiesche takes time to set up his characters and their motivations. Many of the people who helped out on the pile came out of a sense of duty, which led to many strangers working together on a project far bigger than themselves.

It would be impossible, I think, for a book about 9/11 to not be patriotic in some sense, and American Ground is, I guess. But it isn't a war-mongering patriotism, or a xenophobic patriotism; rather, it's a put your head down and do your job kind of patriotism, and it's surprisingly subtle (no red, white, and blue pages here). Reading about 9/11 through the lens of people dealing with its immediate physical ramifications seems more appropriate now than ever as we still try to figure out what happened that day. Reading American Ground made me see the attacks in an entirely different way, and it's a perspective I am extremely grateful to have.

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center
by William Langewiesche
First published in 2002 (cover image shown from North Point Press edition)

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