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A firestorm over hallowed ground

Writer's account of the cleanup of the World Trade Center and his implications about firefighters, others are a source of outrage.

November 19, 2002|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

The story of the folded blue jeans won't go away.

It rankles the firefighters who read about it and say it just could not have happened, not in all the chaos of the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center, not with people jumping to their deaths from offices.

Yet there it is, vividly described in William Langewiesche's much-lauded "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." As Langewiesche describes the event, a fire truck is pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Inside the cab are dozens of folded jeans from the Gap, a store located in the center complex.

His take on the scene: "It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firemen had climbed through the wounded buildings, this particular crew had engaged in something else entirely, of course without the slightest suspicion that the South Tower was about to hammer down."

The book, a compilation of a three-part series that first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, is among the most extensive looks at what happened at ground zero in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But the accusation of looting by firefighters has taken on a life of its own. Just last week, New York Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta fired off a lengthy letter to the Atlantic Monthly. In it, Scoppetta characterized the book as containing "foolish, unfounded and absurd accusations."

"Such absurdity degrades men who valiantly died trying to save lives," he wrote. "Such absurdity insults countless others who devoted months to the dignified and respectful recovery of all victims of the attacks. Such absurdity insults the truth."

Langewiesche is adamant that he painted an accurate and fair portrait of what happened that day: "I know it happened," he said recently at a Pasadena restaurant, adding that the articles had been fact-checked by meticulous researchers before they were published.

The story, on the whole, is an odd one, embroiling a journalist with impeccable credentials with a group of people who feel he demeaned the New York City Fire Department. Langewiesche sees his book as a celebration of Americans and their ability to get things done and says it is much more than the "lock-stepped misty-eyed patriotism" that television cameras sought out and nurtured after the attacks.

He also is frustrated that the jeans keep coming up as he makes a 15-city tour to promote his book, detracting from what has been described as a great journalistic coup -- being the only journalist who had complete access to ground zero in the months after Sept. 11. On that day, Langewiesche was asleep at his home in Davis (he now lives in Paris) when his wife awakened him with the news.

"They're bombing New York," she told him.

"Is it nuclear?" he asked.

In a matter of minutes, Langewiesche was on the phone with Cullen Murphy, Atlantic Monthly's managing editor, talking strategy. He still had a piece to finish about the crash of Egypt Air Flight 990 (which later won a national magazine award). Every airline in the United States was grounded. Should he go to Afghanistan or Ground Zero? As he finished up the Egypt Air story, he decided on the World Trade Center. He'd been in war zones before and had trouble envisioning what he could do in Afghanistan that newspapers weren't already covering.

"It did seem like the World Trade Center cleanup had the potential to be a more interesting piece that could not be covered by the newspapers," he said.

Langewiesche is very much a star at the Atlantic, though he came to serious journalism somewhat late in life. From the time he attended Stanford, Langewiesche had supported himself as an aircraft pilot of everything from cargo planes to corporate jets.

He traveled extensively and wrote for Flying magazine. His luck took a turn when he submitted two unsolicited stories about the Sahara to Atlantic Monthly in 1990. Normally, such stories are sure candidates for rejection. But something about Langewiesche's style struck a chord, and he was dispatched back to the Sahara to do more reporting for a piece the magazine ran the following year. Soon he became a national correspondent for the magazine.

When he arrived in New York, he first went to the media-credentialing area and found it overrun with hundreds of reporters trying to get access to the site. He abandoned that tack and, instead, sneaked onto the site when a National Guardsman was looking the other way. As he later wrote: "People who came to the site in those early days often had the same first sensation, of leaving the city and walking into a dream. Many also felt when they saw the extent of the destruction that they had stumbled into a war zone."

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