Amid the rubble in New York, a secret world grew


May 26, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

William Langewiesche entered Lower Manhattan's Ground Zero within a week of the terrorist attack last September. Over the next eight months, the Atlantic Monthly staff writer was granted total access to the site and to the tireless workers who recovered bodies and removed 2 million tons of debris.

On Thursday, the symbolic end of the recovery effort will be marked when an honor guard places an empty stretcher into an ambulance and a final steel beam is carried away.

For Langewiesche, full immersion into the "culture" of Ground Zero yielded a surprising perspective on the American spirit - and on the contrast between those inside and outside the site's perimeter wall. His 60,000-word account, "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," will run in three parts starting in the Atlantic's July/August issue.

What were your first impressions of Ground Zero?

When I first went there, I was aware of what other people were saying about it being a war zone. I've been in quite a few war zones; my impression when I got there was something different. ... It smelled and it felt and it looked like part of the Third World, specifically the Middle East. [I realized] this is an exercise in Third World political science. Normally what they do to themselves they have delivered here in a lesson in Middle Eastern policy.

The other thing: Once you raised your eyes above the dirt ... there was all this energy. In my experience, at least even if walking among the victors of a battle, let alone walking among the losers, there is an emptiness. [At Ground Zero] there was none of that.

Describe the state of mind of those inside the perimeter wall.

A secret world grew up inside the World Trade Center site. ... There was no opportunity, in the midst of chaos, for paperwork requirements, or safety by conventional standards, or chains of command by conventional standards. I realized early that this was happening. It was an amazing expression of what America is today. What was emerging was something pretty hopeful. Bad things emerged, too. ... It was an organic view of what the United States is today and the view is essentially positive.

How were the World Trade Center site workers transformed by their experience?

They changed a lot. There were some people who went in who couldn't stand it, the sense of loss, the tragedy. Those who stayed were those who wanted to stay; they wanted more involvement. People who rose to the top were unexpected, people with unique skills discovering things about themselves ... inner strength, leadership possibilities that probably will affect them the rest of their lives.

What was the emotional climate like toward the cleanup's end?

As the end approached, there was a tremendous feeling of sadness that came over the entire place. A nostalgia for what had been. [This] was reported as being related to the realization that the dead would never be found. That's an artificial thing. From very early on, they realized most of the dead would never be found. The sadness came because the peak experience in many peoples' lives was beginning to slow down.

There was something else going on, which was this sensation, the jealous possession of tragedy. The entire United States had it. ... It was really intense in New York and even more so at the World Trade Center. People felt they had a stake on that claim.

How did the view from inside the perimeter wall differ from the view outside?

The external view is an iconographic view. The people on the inside ... had a rich view, a personal view of individual characters and stories. The culture that grew up on the inside of the World Trade Center was very rich. It had its own fashions and a language that was created.

What kind of fashions?

[The workers] were super macho, white, ethnic. There were hardly any women, hardly any minorities. ... People were not wearing respirators. They often had respirators off in the middle of the worst smoke and dust. It became a fashion.

What were the workers' attitudes toward those on the outside who flocked to the site?

It was a widely shared emotion inside the site that people on the outside were right to want to look in.

How do you think readers will respond to your report on Ground Zero?

I would assume that some will find that it is not sufficiently maudlin and others will appreciate the honesty and unique experience of the insiders' view.

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