William Langewiesche, Journalist
An Atlantic Monthly correspondent for over a decade, William Langewiesche obtained full access to the Ground Zero site to report on cleanup efforts after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. His book on the subject is American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. Producer Ric Burns interviewed dozens of historians, journalists, artists, engineers and other experts during the making of New York: The Center of the World.
One Person's Story
The story of Pasquale Buzzelli is long and complicated. Typically it's full of confusion. He was one of those people who, for reasons essentially of confusion and not understanding what was going to happen -- no one did -- stayed in the buildings, sticking to -- He was a particularly well-behaved fellow, as were the others who stayed with him, sticking to the approved plan of -- you know -- wait for the evacuation order. So rather than leaving, as the great majority of people did, whether on their own initiative or on someone else's orders, these people stayed, fairly high in the North Tower, and then were caught by the collapse during a descent of the stairwells.
Buzzelli was approximately on the 22nd floor, I believe, or in that neighborhood. He was fairly high up in the building. He heard the collapse coming from above. It sounded to him like a boulder coming down on his head as the floors progressed, pancaking down successfully. Bam, bam, bam. He heard this thundering. And he didn't of course -- And he knew what was happening. He felt the building shaking. He was an engineer. He had this sort of clearheaded technical ability to -- and remained quite calm. He also instinctively ducked, as one would duck with a boulder coming toward one's head. And that's what it felt like to him. He went into a curl in a corner of the stairwell. And then it all fell apart around him, and he felt himself falling free. He kept his eyes closed. But he had all kinds of coherent thoughts, including that this was -- this reminded him of a ride in a amusement park -- I think, Great Adventure in New Jersey -- and how that "falling free" sensation was just like some big roller coaster. He had those thoughts. He was -- He felt the debris against his face as he was falling. And he saw with his eyes closed, he saw these bright flashes. He was being hit by pieces of debris. He was getting bright flashes... behind his closed eyes. Then there was a big final white flash, bright flash. And when he woke up, he was on top of the pile, on top of a huge slab. He, as far as he was concerned, hit the ground and woke up. The only thing is, it was two hours later. So he was out for about two hours. He had no memory or no concept of being out. But he knew exactly what had happened to him. And, I mean, the amazing thing about Buzzelli's story is that he was coherent about it. He could describe it in detail, what it was to fall-- during that collapse.
Beyond that, the amazing thing is that he survived by landing on top of the debris pile. So what was a peculiar thing in that collapse is that there -- the entire building beat him to the ground. It beat him to the ground in two ways. It -- Because of the peculiar pancaking nature of that collapse, top to bottom, systematically, by the time it caught up with him -- the collapse -- most of the building had in a sense already collapsed and was already at something close to its terminal velocity -- maybe not its theoretical terminal velocity, but as fast as it was going to get -- and passed him. Basically the building passed him on the way to the ground. And so, you know, he lost the race and survived. In fact, he had very little physical damage. I believe he broke his foot, and -- but he was stranded. Of course he was disoriented. He couldn't move. He was up high on a slab.
And then he -- And there was a long story full of fear and certainty of death, as fires approached. He looked up though, and he saw -- he couldn't understand what had happened before that even, that -- I mean, he knew the building had collapsed, but he couldn't -- he still couldn't understand, where was -- Where was the South Tower -- which by that time had already gone? Where was the North Tower? He saw sky and smoke and -- So there was a funny contradiction in that he both -- he was analytical and knew what had happened, and knew what was happening when it was happening to him, yet he couldn't get the consequences. It's just what we were talking about: that this death was too severe for him to fathom. So he's lying on this altar. He's having that confusion. There's no one around. It's utterly silent. There're no people around, nothing. It's a wasteland desert in the middle of New York City. The buildings are gone, there's smoke, and then there's fire.
At some point, he was quite certain -- to make a long story short -- that he was going to die from fire. So certain that he found a piece of jagged metal and was going to cut his wrists, in order not at least to burn to death. And had gotten to that point when he was rescued.
My American Experience
How did you first learn of the September 11 attacks? Do you remember what you were doing when the Twin Towers fell? What did it mean to you? Do you have specific memories of that day?