The firefighters and the writer
Sunday, November 24, 2002
- New York
THE FIREFIGHTERS crammed the sidewalk outside a bookstore on Manhattan's Upper West Side one night last week. They did not come to put out a fire. They came to light one. "Liar, liar, liar," they chanted.
Inside, the alleged liar - an author - tried to speak.
This was supposed to be a celebration for William Langewiesche and his new book about Ground Zero recovery efforts. A dozen firefighters rushed into the store. Police were called. The yelling got louder.
This is what the story of Ground Zero has now come to - hurt feelings and name-calling. But don't blame firefighters. They have good reason to yell.
Langewiesche, a correspondent for Atlantic Monthly, claims he was granted "unrestricted access" to Ground Zero for nine months, often staying 18 hours at a time in the "very private world that was not visited by other writers in any serious way."
That's quite a claim. Langewiesche's 205-page "American Ground" has been praised by many literary critics. "Full of colorful characters and astonishing scenes," said one reviewer. Said another: "He certainly saw more than anyone else."
Did he? I wanted to like this book. But where are all the colorful scenes?
Was he there on Christmas morning when rescue workers refused to set their tools down and take a holiday? Did he see people who came to pray on Sunday mornings? Did he see fathers in search of sons' bodies or the iron worker who found his brother's crushed remains? Did he venture to the underground mall and see the child's stroller, the gray dust on unsold newspapers, the women's shoes still on display, the broken perfume bottles?
These are just a few small stories - stories that I and other journalists came upon at Ground Zero. Where was Langewiesche with his "unrestricted access"?
That is hardly a petty question. Langewiesche casts his book as no less than chronicling an important piece of American history. Shouldn't history be accurate and complete?
To him, cops and firefighters were white guys "from the outer boroughs," so "tribal" that they were focused on just finding colleagues' bodies. He says their , selfishness nearly caused the recovery work "to fall apart" in November, but offers no proof of this incredible assertion.
Iron workers come off as emotionless drones, never capable of shedding tears. Volunteers from all over America are all but absent in this book. The fire department "had no monopoly on altruism." (Who said it did?) A prime motive for showing up was "survivor guilt" -so said a nameless therapist. Langewiesche adds that "the lack of discipline was a well-known aspect of firemen's culture." (All firefighters?)
This is journalism reported in generalities, and that's the problem. There is little room for nuance and subtle traits of humanity - the dusty wedding pictures in the "pile," the rose still blooming, the receipt at the debris-covered ATM machine, the female cop who came on New Year's Eve to pray for her dead friends.
Langewiesche's vantage point seems distant. He may be there, but he rarely gets close.
Yes, many rescue workers were white. But didn't Langewiesche notice the black iron worker from Englewood running cranes on the night shift? Didn't he see white Port Authority cops scraping away debris by hand to reach the remains of a black colleague?
Yes, cops and firefighters kept to themselves. But was this selfish "tribalism" or just a tendency to lean on your buddies in the face of overwhelming sadness? And would he have reduced their motives to primitive "tribalism" if they were non-white?
He depicts most firefighters as craving media attention, somehow missing a deeper story - that many were embarrassed by hero labels. He calls their search for the dead "headstrong," but overlooks something more profound - their dedication and love.
Most controversial is Langewiesche's claim that firefighters looted the twin towers. This is where his reporting is especially lazy.
He writes, for example, that "firemen were said to prefer watches from the Tourneau store, policemen to opt for kitchen appliances." Who said this? He offers no names.
The Tourneau store was, in fact, looted - as were a few other stores. Three men were arrested with Tourneau watches, including a retired prison guard and an unemployed security guard. No firefighters or cops were arrested for any looting. The facts are easy to check.
Langewiesche further describes a fire truck lifted from the rubble and filled with jeans. His conclusion: Firefighters sped to the twin towers, parked, ran downstairs to the mall, and carried jeans to their truck before heading into the twin towers.
No one saw this. Langewiesche's sources are nameless construction workers who jumped to this conclusion after lifting the truck from the rubble and jeans fell out.
By the way, all the firefighters on that truck died, their bodies later found with a "jaws of life" tool by an elevator. Langewiesche never reported that. The FDNY says he never checked.
The other night at the bookstore, he fell silent as cat-calls washed over him. After 10 minutes, he left, his publicist later claiming his book had been "fact-checked word-by-word." Outside, firefighters still chanted "liar."
The rubble may be gone from Ground Zero. But another kind of rubble follows William Langewiesche - a rubble he needs to clean up.
Record Columnist Mike Kelly can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.