TERENCE SMITH: Beginning just days after the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers on Sept. 11, correspondent William Langewiesche was given exclusive round-the-clock access to the massive recovery and digging-out process. His 70,000 word book-length account of life at ground zero during that process is the cover story in the July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly, on news stands today. William Langewiesche, welcome.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE, The Atlantic Monthly: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: We should note that this is described, this article, this is the first of three parts, as the longest piece of original reporting that this magazine has done in its 150- year history. So it's remarkable in that respect as well. How did you get the special access to the site and to its people?
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: I went to the Trade Center site a few days after the buildings came down, as soon as the airlines started flying, and looked at it quickly on my own and saw that the really effective movement there was the movement of heavy equipment coming in.
I knew that as an Atlantic writer, that standard press credentials weren't going to help me; that I needed better access than that. So I, and my people at the Atlantic, contacted the man who seemed to be moving the equipment. We heard about this man. His name was Kenneth Holden, a very obscure... the head of an obscure bureaucracy, basically, in Queens, who was unexpectedly moving in equipment. We contacted him. He turned out to be a reader of ours, and he understood the nature of the work we do, and he made it happen.
TERENCE SMITH: So you asked and he said yes.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: That's what it was.
TERENCE SMITH: You describe the "pile," as it's called in your work here, as incredibly isolated, its own world, isolated even from Manhattan.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: In some ways it seems like it was even maybe more isolated from Manhattan than from the rest of the country.
TERENCE SMITH: How so?
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: Manhattan is a very rich place, and it's a very special place, high income to say the least, very white collar. Inside the perimeter of the World Trade Center, it was a blue collar scene. Now, it was very New York. Mostly it was outer-borough New York. But the connection to Manhattan was cut, in a sense, by almost, you could say, by class differences, also by the simple difficulty of getting through the perimeter. It was very hard for people to get in, and by the way, the press was systematically excluded except for short tours.
TERENCE SMITH: But not you.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: You were in there and were permitted to stay in there and to talk to people.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: I lived and breathed it.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. You describe this in your article as "a uniquely American exercise." What do you mean?
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: Inside that perimeter, inside the secret world there, there was, first of all, chaos. It was an unplanable situation, or terrain, or problem, so the standard solutions weren't going to apply.
Improvisation was what was necessary, and it was allowed to run at the World Trade Center. The genius of the American system, the thing we all believe in -- creativity, improvisation -- was brought forth inside the World Trade Center site, again out of sight, and maybe the hidden aspect of it was necessary to keep the political forces down.
But people were allowed to take enormous risks, physical and intellectual risks, and they were given a lot of responsibility. There was a new form of democracy at play, where lowly workers and people without rank were suddenly rising high, gaining power on the basis of what they could provide the operation. There was a sort of an all- American chaos, and I don't believe that we would have seen that sort of response in most other countries.
TERENCE SMITH: And you say that some natural leaders from these ranks sort of arose of the moment. Is that right?
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: Starting with Kenneth Holden himself, the commissioner of the department of design and construction. And these people in Queens were in charge of building municipal buildings in New York City, basically, sidewalks and sewers and municipal buildings. They were not emergency responders.
So starting with Ken Holden, an unexpected man who with Mike Burton, the man who became known as the czar of the World Trade Center, responded within a few hours very effectively, and others, too. There were firemen, lowly firemen, who were not playing the role of hero but were engaged actively in concrete and material solutions on the ground, and who, as a result of their effectiveness, rose to power.
There was one man, for instance, another fireman, Sam Alise, who played another role, which was not so much practical, but political internally. He kept... he acted as a mediator between the warring factions within the site, and he kept the process going through his natural skills of sympathy with all sides.
TERENCE SMITH: So as you say, you had this little democracy, this little community that built up and was there day and night for months.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: In which people were defining themselves for the first time in their lives, often learning things about themselves and being accepted as something different by other people within the site.
TERENCE SMITH: You describe a harrowing trip down to the "big chiller", as you call it, the air conditioning unit down deep in the wreckage. And there was a danger there, the freon, what was that?
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: In very simple terms the freon could have served as sort of a poisonous gas. It's a little bit more complicated than that, but it was a threat to the site. The possibility that freon was sitting in these enormous tanks at the center of the ruins underneath the pile, it was finally necessary as the equipment came in from above, it was finally necessary to know what was the condition of the pile around those tanks. Did they perhaps have freon in them? And that expedition I described in the piece.
TERENCE SMITH: And you went along.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: I went along, as I went along on many of them, many of them.
TERENCE SMITH: Yeah. I mean, just extraordinarily dramatic as you went down and found that in fact the freon had been released.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: We knew it had been released because of the extent of the ruins.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: We found ourselves in conditions of horrific ruin underneath the pile. And it was very clear from that that no tank containing freon could have survived; nothing survived. We were in little cracks.
TERENCE SMITH: You describe some poignant scenes here, including one involving an older fireman looking for his son who was buried in the debris. Tell me about that.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: This was an extreme of emotion there. For the most part, the people who were working at the site were not family members. That is obviously the way it needed to be.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: So there was some emotional distance. I would say that everyone working there knew, always remembered that 3,000 or nearly 3,000 people had died here, that this has been a very serious attack against the United States, and that what they were doing was a response directly to that.
There were people, there were some people, and they were in the fire department because of the connections that the fire department had at the site, who were allowed in to look for their own children. This was one of those people. And it was a very, very sad sight. I described it with reluctance, but out of a desire to be as honest as possible in this piece.
TERENCE SMITH: He was concerned that the bulldozers were going to cover over where his son might be.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: That's right. And of course he did not know where his son was. I mean, the son could have been anywhere in the pile, in fact, but he was down on his knees in the rubble with a spade and he was actually smelling the debris for the remains of his son. It was a very rough sight. And again, I was reluctant to put it in. I did put it in because I feel that a piece like this requires absolute frank honesty.
TERENCE SMITH: At times you say, even given all that happened, the site was strangely beautiful. And there are some photographs in here that are remarkable because there is a kind of beauty. Tell us about it.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: Joe Morowitz, the man who took the pictures, a great photographer, well known, was there also on and off. Quite often he was there. And he captured much of that beauty. He was aware of the beauty from the start. And I think he was reluctant, as he said to me at times, even to express that, but there was no denying it. And within the site, people acknowledged that right away. People often said, "this is so beautiful." "Look at these colors." "Look at these surreal forms." "Look at this smoke rising into the sky at night."
TERENCE SMITH: All right. And finally, as the project came to an end, what were the emotions then?
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: In order to understand the emotions then, you have to understand what the emotions were before that. And that is the emotions were largely a vitalization, this was for many people, though, very sad. It was enormous tragedy for many people there. There was also a liberation from normal life. There was a sense of enormous creation going on, of pride, of the specialness of the mission. And all of those things somewhat related the feelings that soldiers may have in war, but without someone shooting at them.
Those very positive things were going on at the World Trade Center. And when the end came in sight, the last few months as things began to become more and more organized and normalized and predictable, the schedule was very clear -- people, what they really felt was regret.
TERENCE SMITH: Regret?
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: Regret to be leaving in a way. I mean a mixed feeling, because of course it was nonsensical. But no one really would have wished for this, therefore how could you regret to leave it? But people felt regret that this experience would never again be duplicated in their lives.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, it's a remarkable story. William Langewiesche, thanks so much for being with us.
WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: Thank you.