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Heroes are in the details

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, William Langewiesche, North Point Press: 206 pp., $22

November 17, 2002|Adam Bresnick | Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the [London] Times Literary Supplement.

Several weeks ago, taking advantage of the recently restored service on the No. 1 subway line, I rode past the World Trade Center stop on my way down to Rector Street. Imposing metallic barriers have been erected at the edge of the platforms to block the passenger's vista. I was reminded of the zombie-like quality of the abandoned East Berlin U-Bahn stations en route to the checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse before the Berlin Wall's fall. An eerie calm prevails in the dry, empty subway tunnel, and were it not for the thunder of memory, one would pay no attention to the shuttered station platform under what William Langewiesche poignantly calls "American Ground."

The moral and technical challenge of getting down to that ground in the wake of the attacks is the subject of Langewiesche's remarkable account. Though some have complained that the book's subtitle is arch, it is rather simply descriptive: Langewiesche sets himself the task of recounting in sober prose how engineers and workers set about the overwhelming labor of clearing 1.5 million tons of debris from the devastated site.

"American Ground" offers a painstaking insider's account of the cleanup operation, as the author had apparently unlimited access to the site. Indeed, during the months after Sept. 11, Langewiesche was privy to many of the intricate political battles that transpired there, most famously the strife between firefighters and the Giuliani administration, which sought to place curbs on the FDNY's operation because of safety concerns, resulting in the mini-riot of Nov. 2, 2001.

Langewiesche's strategy of adopting an almost clinical discourse is unusually cagey, especially as the unimaginable wound of the attacks soon gave way to the endless emoting of television pundits. In the wake of what was effectively a national post-traumatic stress disorder, Langewiesche's dry attention to detail surreptitiously restores the enormous trauma of the event. He is particularly good at using facts and figures to conjure up the difficulty faced by the wrecking crews: "Because the Twin Towers had been as much as 90 percent air and 10 percent structure, they had contained the equivalent of approximately eleven solid stories of steel and concrete." The mind boggles at realizing the composition of these monumental towers, which upon crumbling registered on seismographs with the intensity of a small earthquake. By mobilizing such paradoxes, Langewiesche allows us to perceive the shock anew.

Langewiesche also has a way of locating wicked ironies and absurdities that give one pause. He describes how 308,000 tons of structural steel and girders that once propped up the towers were finally dumped into the cargo holds of an aging ship from Istanbul: "It was high-quality metal, but too expensive for American mills, in part because of high ground-transportation costs. Costs were more relaxed elsewhere, of course. For better or worse, the scrap-steel market is famously global." So it was that the beams that provided the infrastructure of one of Manhattan's most famous building complexes were shipped as scrap metal through the Panama Canal to be melted down in China and sold worldwide. The remains of the trade center became a commodity in the very world trade market Al Qaeda sought to destroy.

One of the book's most gripping sections describes an expedition to what workers called "the final frontier," the site of the towers' main chiller plant, one of the largest air-conditioning facilities in the world. The plant was composed of seven refrigeration units, each as big as a locomotive engine and each packed with up to 24,000 pounds of highly toxic Freon gas. Langewiesche and a hardy group of engineers risk their lives by going on what he rather jauntily describes as a "spelunking run." The men pass through a surreal landscape: a parking garage filled with half-melted Lexuses, BMWs and Jaguars; a vault belonging to the Bank of Nova Scotia that robbers had attempted to pry open prior to the spelunking team's mission of early October; a commuter bar "with its bottles of booze, its racks of inverted glasses overhead, its open Heinekens on the counter." The damage to the chiller plant turned out to be worse than the crew expected, yet they were happy to find that the gas had vented, so there was no danger of a Freon explosion.

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