Lay off Langewiesche.

Lay off Langewiesche.

Lay off Langewiesche.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Oct. 17 2002 6:30 PM

Lay Off Langewiesche

Chatterbox defends the best thing yet written about 9/11.

In the Oct. 16 New York Observer, Joe Hagan reported that Stephen Jay Gould's widow, Marcel Duchamp scholar Rhonda Roland Shearer, had launched a "personal crusade" against American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, a new book by William Langewiesche that was serialized this past summer in the Atlantic Monthly. (To read excerpts, click here, here, and here. To learn how to pronounce "William Langewiesche," see this "Explainer.") Shearer, who was a volunteer at the Ground Zero cleanup (and is assembling her own oral history) has posted on her Web site a lengthy rebuttal to Langewiesche's book, alleging scores of factual errors. According to the Observer, Shearer wants to see the book shredded and has discussed bringing a lawsuit if it isn't.

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The story caught Chatterbox's attention because he was a great admirer of the Langewiesche pieces, which avoided the mythologizing inherent in almost everything else that's been written about the Sept. 11 massacre. (Every employee of the New York Times should be required to read them, along with Thomas Mallon's brave but little-noticed essay, "The Mourning Paper," in the spring 2002 American Scholar. The latter eloquently took the Times to task for homogenizing the subjects of its Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Portraits of Grief" into "smile-button cyborgs.") To Chatterbox, Langewiesche's dispassion in describing the rescue and cleanup efforts was a welcome antidote to the pervasive mawkishness and hero worship. To Shearer, though, that dispassion must have seemed obscene because her rebuttal (co-written with various officials from the New York City fire and police departments and Bovis construction, the cleanup's chief contractor) is highly emotional and largely incoherent.

Most of Shearer's complaints touch on Langewiesche's depiction of the fire department workers at the cleanup site and the widows of the deceased firemen. One of the virtues of Langewiesche's book is that he is willing to tell some hard truths about the ways that the country's sympathy and adulation for the fire department, which lost 343 members on Sept. 11, encouraged tribal behavior on "the pile":

The image of "heroes" seeped through their ranks like a low-grade narcotic. It did not intoxicate them, but it skewed their view. … The firemen seemed to become steadily more self-absorbed and isolated from the larger cleanup efforts under way.

Langewiesche writes that the fire department workers on the pile tended to place greater importance on recovering the bodies of deceased firemen than on recovering deceased police workers or office workers from the trade towers. He also reports that they were able to exercise substantial clout whenever site supervisors sought to speed up demolition and dispersal of the debris. Langewiesche's portrayal hardly amounts to demonization—one of the lead firemen, a man named Sam Melisi, comes across as a figure of Yoda-like wisdom and calm—but it's clearly too much for Shearer, who worked closely with the fire department workers and plainly identifies with the firemen's widows. (The fire department's color guard and pipes and drums performed last May at the funeral of Stephen Jay Gould. Gould, incidentally, was before his death haunted by the coincidence that the Sept. 11 attacks occurred precisely 100 years after his maternal grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Hungary. The Julian calendar was, along with Major League Baseball, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the idiocy of IQ tests, a favorite subject of the famously polymath professor.)

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A typical example of Shearer's elevated capacity to perceive slight is the following passage, a first-person account of an underground trip to inspect a possible Freon leak:

The firemen were young, and visibly more relaxed than the police. Several ventured like sightseers into the PATH tube, playing the beams of their flashlights across its iron rings into the green and red puddles of oily fluid. …

Here is Shearer's "correction":

The depiction of visual inspections of a dangerous environment by trained and dedicated firefighters "as sightseers" is inaccurate and an injustice to those who risk their lives in professional service and in their extensive training.

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Shearer also hits the roof over Langewiesche's use of the term "tribalism" to describe divisions between the police department, the fire department, and construction workers:

The frequent use of the terms tribalism and tribal … is inaccurate at best and a slur at worst evoking the same type of generalizations made of African-Americans as ignorant, physical primitive laborers ("jungle bunnies") whose bravery could only be instinctive or normal, not of a superior kind. Like dumb, inferior animals, firemen in particular … "run wild" and act in packs with an absence of civilized values. …

Factoring out rants, misreadings, and disagreements of interpretation, Chatterbox was able to glean from Shearer's memo precisely six errors in Langewiesche's book. Let's review them.

  1. The most loot-worthy cache at Ground Zero was $250 million in gold and silver ingots stashed in a vault belonging to the Bank of Nova Scotia that was buried under the collapsed Building 4 of the World Trade Center. It was never disturbed. But Langewiesche reports that when a team was finally able to reach it, it discovered that "others had been there before, attempting to pry open the vault's door and to cut it from above, in both cases unsuccessfully." Unbeknownst to Langewiesche, the police ultimately concluded that the initial team had been wrong—the damage had been caused not by attempted burglary, but by "old distress."
  2. Langewiesche reports that the firemen lost 343 people "out of a force of 14,000." The actual size of the fire department force (during fiscal year 2002) is 15,000. This discrepancy probably reflects when Langewiesche or the Atlantic's fact-checkers checked the figure, which of course never stays static—people are constantly being hired, fired, and retired. In that sense, it's probably unfair to call this an error at all.
  3. Langewiesche reports that "as many as 250" firefighters "lay unaccounted for in the ruins." The actual number was 253.
  4. Langewiesche reports that diesel excavators uncovered the remains of a fire truck driven underground by the collapse of the South Tower. Inside were found piles of new jeans from the Gap. "It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firemen had climbed through the wounded buildings, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely, without the slightest suspicion that the South Tower was about to hammer down." The jeans weren't from the Gap; they were from Structure. Shearer also denies that the jeans were "stacked neatly" and answers Langewiesche's speculation that they were stolen with the somewhat less persuasive speculation that they were blown in. Langewiesche answers that he has the details of this scene "from more than two people" and that "not to write that story would have been propagandistic."
  5. Langewiesche writes that "after the site matured," there were no volunteers on the pile—only on its periphery. Apparently he overlooked Rhonda Shearer and her daughter, London Allen.
  6. Langewiesche describes looking out a window "one day in spring" and seeing an exposed PATH train. The PATH train was exposed between Feb. 20 and March 1, so it couldn't have been spring (which didn't start until March 21).

What can we say about these six errors? First, they are all extremely minor. (Missing Rhonda Shearer and her daughter was a big political mistake, but a small journalistic one.) Second, if you find only six errors in a 205-page book, it's a red-letter day for nonfiction. Shearer's oral-history project on the World Trade Center sounds like a worthwhile effort. Her crusade against Langewiesche, though, is utterly cracked.

[Update, Oct. 22: The New York Times, weighing in today on Langewiesche's book, judged it insufficiently sanctimonious. The ordinarily level-headed Michiko Kakutani called it "coldblooded," "sour," and "weirdly voyeuristic." (Kakutani prefers a documentary she saw on the History Channel.) This suggests that reluctance at the Times to apply normal journalistic standards to 9/11 coverage runs deeper than even Chatterbox realized. Happily, though, the Oct. 20 Sunday TimesBook Review broke ranks and ran a sensible rave by Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker (and, on occasion, Slate).]