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Unbuilding WTC

December 20, 2002

The most telling fact I read in “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center” was this: “After the South Tower fell, police helicopter pilots took a close-up look at the fire in the North Tower, and twenty-one minutes before the final collapse they urged their own command to evacuate the building.”

Policemen inside the building received this warning, but not firemen. Most of the policemen escaped; most of the firemen did not.

Information was not withheld. There was no oversight; no incompetence; no hatefulness. The lack of communication was built into the system. Large organizations — with their own turf, culture, political circumstances, and money — simply did not work together.

I found this telling because it is the same condition that permitted the terrorists to accomplish their plan in the first place, despite U.S. intelligence: lack of communication between large organizations … in an age of “communication.”

Maybe the “Homeland Security” reorganization will help, but I doubt it. It’s like most corporate reorganizations: It gives the appearance of something happening. Worse, too much effort seems directed at the freedom and privacy of American citizens.

Oh, well. There will be plenty of opportunity to talk about that. Ever since our representatives gave away the farm after 9/11 with the Patriot Act, plenty of opportunists have lined up waiting for their chance to chomp at our liberties.

American politics is full of people who “know” how you should think and act. Who want to know what you read, for Pete’s sake. These will be interesting times, for sure.

But the year following 9/11 was a very interesting time in lower Manhattan, and journalist William Langewiesche tells it well.

The curious subtitle, “Unbuilding the World Trade Center,” makes perfect sense once you start reading the book. The ruins, which workers called “The Pile,” covered 17 acres, and damage extended beyond that in every direction.

Imagine downtown Salida buried in 1.5 million tons of former office buildings, from 80 feet below ground to at least that high above. Imagine several thousand workers with heavy equipment crawling all over the pile looking for remains and slowly dismantling the tangle.

The ruins had to be “unbuilt,” in fact. It was an engineering nightmare. There are twists in this tale you couldn’t imagine: the threat of the Hudson River rushing in through damaged subway tubes; 84 tons of Freon possibly still buried below the rubble; mold and bacteria-laden water.

“American Ground” was a bestseller for a while, but no one here asked to read it. It seemed reasonable that people were tired of things 9/11. But after reading a brief review about the book’s unique perspective, I ordered it.

The author came under fire for his reports in the Atlantic Monthly, which revealed such facts as that one of the firetrucks exhumed from the pile was full of blue jeans stolen from The Gap at the Trade Center. This particular instance of looting, among many, was evidently accomplished first thing, before the towers fell.

However, at the time of the report, firemen were still sacrosanct, and such heresy raised a furor. But who would not expect the full range of human behavior among the thousands of people involved?

In fact, the unbuilding of the Towers stands as a monumental human achievement — a nearly impromptu gathering of people of ability and power who conquered a disaster that left all emergency plans in the dust and set the stage for some remarkable but unsung (until now) achievements. Recommended reading.

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