American Ground Unbuilding the World Trade Center

William Langewiesche; With a New Afterword by the Author

North Point Press



Trade Paperback

240 Pages



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National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee
A Los Angeles Times Best Book
A Boston Globe Best Book
A Publishers Weekly Best Book
Finalist for the New York Public Library's Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism

American Ground is the story—until now untold—of the people who responded to the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Within days, William Langewiesche made his way into the innermost recesses of the collapse. By virtue of the integrity and excellence of his previous work, he quickly secured unique, unrestricted, around-the-clock access to the site, the rescue workers and laborers there, and the meetings of city officials, engineers, construction companies, and consultants. Throughout the urgent and often dangerous efforts of the months that followed, he became the only writer to be "embedded" in the World Trade Center—that is, to live virtually night and day among the unbuilding crew as they brought order to an instance of chaos unprecedented on American soil.

This book is a tour of this intense, ephemeral world and those who inhabited it. With the "knowledge and passion as well as . . . careful eloquence" (The New York Times) for which his work is known, Langewiesche describes the physical details of the collapse and the ensuing deconstruction of the ruins, capturing in the process the human dramas that were its aftershock. In this inner world, decisions were as spontaneous as the shifting of the piles of debris, and the consequences of failure or mistake might mean the death of hundreds of workers, or the flooding of a large part of underground Manhattan. As the difficult work of extracting the rubble and the thousands of dead buried there got under way, and firefighters, police officers, widows, bureaucrats, and profiteers attempted to claim the work—and the tragedy—as their own, the emotional and political implications loomed large as well.

Langewiesche's account revolves around the unlikely and sometimes unstable coalition to whom it fell to orchestrate the deconstruction, many of them engineers who had once been involved in constructing the towers. With no master plan, no memos, no organizational charts, no business-as-usual, they improvised the recovery effort day by day, and in the process reinvented themselves, discovering unknown strengths and weaknesses.

In all of its aspects—emotionalism, impulsiveness, opportunism, territoriality, resourcefulness, and fundamental, cacophonous democracy—Langewiesche reveals the story of the unbuilding to be uniquely American and inspiring, a portrait of resilience and ingenuity in the face of disaster.


Praise for American Ground

"The most thoughtful and original [9-11] book to appear so far is American Ground, William Langewiesche's meticulous description of the rescue effort at Ground Zero and the subsequent excavation of the 1.8 million tons of debris at the literal and emotional heart of this calamity. Langewiesche was granted almost unlimited access to the site and the rescue staff, and he made the most of the privilege."—Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

"An extraordinary story . . . Langewiesche . . . was the only reporter granted total access to Ground Zero . . . He spent nine months there and emerged to write American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center . . . It is an amazing piece of journalism, full of colorful characters and astonishing scenes."—The Washington Post

"Unlike much of the writing about ground zero, there is a freshness of perspective in [these] sentences, owing largely to Langewiesche's determination to approach September 11 not as the one great cataclysm of American history but as just another part, albeit a big one, of the long history of human struggle, and of man's attempt to impose order on disorder . . . American Ground demonstrates that the view from [Ground Zero] is useful in many respects. It has allowed Langewiesche to remove the events of September 11 from their sentimental and harrowing contexts and turn it into a story in which tragedy yields to ingenuity and triumph."—Michael Tomasky, The New York Review of Books

"It's clear that the real accomplishment of Langewiesche wasn't his unrestricted access to the scene. Rather it is the craft with which he constructs his saga of deconstruction . . . Langewiesche has captured it with a succinct richness that probably can't be equaled."—John King, San Francisco Chronicle

"Says more about our essential character than a thousand maudlin tributes."—Boris Kachka, New York

"The best and freshest journalism, and the one book to read, if you're only reading one . . . Tremendous detail on every angle, tersely and poetically written . . . Worth the wait."—Marta Salij, Detroit Free Press

'While much has been made of Langewiesches wide-ranging and rare access to the devastated site near Wall Street, what distinguishes his account is its pure journalism. This . . . kind of clear-eyed reporting and strong writing . . . seems fresh and original today because its so seldom that we encounter reporting at its most elemental . . . extraordinary events demand not only extraordinary responses, which was the case at the WTC site, but also an objective witness who can testify with the facts, not prejudice. That kind of testimony is Langewiesche's singular accomplishment."—Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"By far the best of the post-9/11 books . . . A truly extraordinary work of original reporting in which diligent gathering of facts was accompanied by intelligent and informed reflection on their meaning."—Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times

"Remarkable . . . Teeming with [both] paradoxes and ironies, American Ground accomplishes the rare feat of restoring the unimaginable trauma to the events of Sept. 11 and presenting the everyday heroism of those who cleared the site of its rubble."—Adam Bresnick, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"One of the most compelling, dramatic, and uplifting pieces of writing you are likely ever to read . . . American Ground will make you proud of the ground you walk on."—Kevin Horrigan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Keenly observe[d] . . . In the face of byzantine intrigue, ever-present danger, and constant reminders of unfathomable horror, [Langewiesche] maintains his investigative instincts, his composure, and above all the sense of dignity without which we could not bear to hear the story again."—Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe

"For all the frenzied cultural effort that goes into manufacturing sentimentalized images from raw truth and fact, it always turns out that that and tact are more interesting, and often even more inspiring. And so it is with the story of the World Trade Center sites recovery after the terror and destruction of Sept. 11, 2001. [Langewiesche] embraced the unsavory, all-too-human aspects of his story as sympathetically as the genuinely heroic, and he is reluctant to judge any of his subjects harshly."—Rick Harmon, The Oregonian

"Many Sept. 11 books and articles have attempted to re-create the horror of that day and its aftermath—the detail of Langewiesche's account, drawn from months of 18-hour days at the site, trumps them all."—Sharyn Wizda Vane, Austin American-Statesman

"This is a genuinely monumental story, told without melodrama, an intimate depiction of ordinary Americans reacting to grand-scale tragedy."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

William Langewiesche is the author of three previous books, Cutting for Sign, Sahara Unveiled, and Inside the Sky. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, where this book originated as a three-part series.
Read the full excerpt


  • William Langewiesche; With a New Afterword by the Author

  • William Langewiesche is the author of three previous books, Cutting For Sign, Sahara Unveiled, and Inside the Sky. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, where this book originated as a three-part series.
  • William Langewiesche Copyright Andrew Brucker