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Archived Weekly Features
This View by Nancy LeMay
Nancy LeMay is a five-time Emmy winning broadcast designer who has worked both in New York and LA, in network and local. She is a teacher and a painter as well. You can reach her through her website, and by email at
Atlantic Monthly's "American Ground"

As we move inexorably toward the September 11th anniversary, we watch news
being transformed into history. Observation and recording are becoming
interpretation and reflection as time works it's unceasing effect.

The Atlantic Monthly's summer issue began a three-part series titled
"American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," by the magazine's
national correspondent William Langewiesche. It is the longest piece of
original reporting ever done by the magazine. The reports offer a unique
perspective: Langewiesche was the only reporter officially 'embedded' in the
WTC recovery effort, so he had total access to the site. He accompanied crews
on surveys deep into 'the pile,' the wreckage of the Towers themselves, and
describes people and places we've heard little or nothing about.

The piece balances large and small detail and brings some aspects of the
event into intimate focus. We are with him as he goes into Banker's Trust,
the austere black building that faced the South Tower-its' front was raked by
the Tower's collapse. He finds the abandoned breakfast tables of the
executive dining area, "...torn open at one end, and covered in the gray
Trade Center dust, but otherwise intact...Down the hallway I discovered a
dining room that had been in use, evidently by two people, whose breakfast
still sat on the table as they had left it."

Langewiesche's descriptions of place are compelling, but he also tells us
about the people he got to know, who organized and guided the recovery
effort. He accompanies engineers in situations both dangerous and routine; he
takes us to the center of the wreckage to explore the huge air conditioning
unit buried under the North Tower, and up the street to PS 89 where
kindergarten rooms served as the emergency operations center. He spends much
time with Port Authority engineer Peter Rinaldi, whose offices were on the
72nd floor but who was vacationing on September 11th. In the 1993 bombing of
the WTC, Rinaldi had been caught in an elevator and escaped by chopping
through drywall and tile, then squeezing through a small hole and into a
bathroom stall on the 58th floor. Rinaldi's recollections move the narrative
smoothly from '93 to 2001, helping us imagine each of those days.

But Langewiesche is also a pilot and had written extensively for aviation
magazines, so "American Ground" also adds to our understanding of the
airplanes' impact on the Towers. Each had a different dynamic, owing to the
plane's speed, angle of impact, height of impact, as well as the differing
orientation of each of the Towers. His narrative is clear; he gives us a
sense of the engineering involved, and also a better understanding of some of
the things so well known to us through pictures: "Apocalyptic though it
seemed, the huge fireball that blossomed over the plaza was actually to the
building's advantage, because it consumed as much as a third of the available
fuel, releasing the heat harmlessly into the air. That left two thirds of the
fuel inside the tower, however, and it was widely spread and burning."

The piece is clear-eyed and compassionate, filled both with the thoughts and
reactions of the people dealing with the tragedy, as well as the intense
complexity of the recovery effort. A diagram shows the west side of lower
Manhattan, all the most heavily affected buildings, as well as the 'bathtub',
the WTC foundation, and the PATH and subway stations. The photographs by
Joel Meyerowitz are familiar and few, and they help to build the narrative.
The facade of the Banker's Trust is one of them-we see it before it was
draped in it's protective construction netting and we can easily imagine the
Liberty Street face of 2WTC as it clawed it's way down the front of this
office building.

The second of the installments is now on the newsstands and the third will be
out in October; that same month the whole series will be published as a book
by North Point Press.