Joe Desposito's Blog

WTC Unbuilding—Still Compelling Reading 10 Years Later

Before this 10th anniversary year of the World Trade Center attack ends, I thought I should post this blog. Back in 2002, I started a subscription to the Atlantic Monthly magazine. The first issue I received contained Part 2 of an article by William Langewiesche called American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. Rather than start with Part 2, I decided that I would go to the library to get Part 1, so I could read the entire article. At the time, I don’t believe the Atlantic was posting previous issues online.

But as a true procrastinator, I didn’t make it to the library until about a year and a half later. I printed out the article and saved it, but didn’t set aside time to actually read the article. Then I lost track of the magazines with the last two parts, found them again, and lost track of the printout with the first part. And so it went until this year, when I cleaned up my basement and found all three parts of the article. Still I didn’t start reading until about a month ago, probably moved by the 10th anniversary events at the WTC.

The article made for fascinating reading, for many different reasons. Langewiesche spent nine months at the disaster site before writing the articles and was able to capture most eloquently the tragedy itself, the response to it, how leadership evolved and the thoughts of many of the engineers involved in the project—the challenges they faced and their solutions. Not only did he do this, but he also related it to the attack on the WTC in 1993 and how that colored some of the decisions in 2001.

I knew that many engineers from my alma mater, Manhattan College, played big roles in the unbuilding of the WTC, the author saying that they even referred to it as a class project. I knew this without even reading the article, since the college itself held a day in honor of these engineers back in 2004, I believe, which unfortunately I missed. In any case, I did not know any of these guys personally. What I hadn’t realized is that one of my friends from high school, Frank Lombardi, was Chief Engineer at the Port Authority at the time. The Port Authority built, owned and operated the World Trade Center, where it maintained its headquarters. Langewiesche wrote lots about Frank and the ordeals he went through both in 1993 and 2011. I really felt for the guy.

Over the years, many people have asked me where I was on September 11, 2001. The answer is that I was sitting at my office desk at Penton Media in Hasbrouck Heights, N. J., when I got a call from my wife at around 9:00 am telling me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I didn’t even get up from my chair, even though we had a perfect view of the WTC from the windows along the south wall of the office. I just assumed that a small plane had gone off course and slammed into the building. But eventually there was such a commotion in the office that I went over to take a look.

I could not believe what I was seeing. From my perspective it looked like an atom bomb had detonated on top of the building. Someone turned on a TV with very poor reception and heard the news that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon and then another into the WTC. I had a hard time believing what was happening. I walked back to my office and continued to work. Shortly after, the person in charge of the office told us all to go home--easier said than done.

I was living on Long Island at the time and the bridges connecting New Jersey to New York had all been closed except one, which was an hour or so north of the office. I finally made it back home after a couple of hours and watched as stranded motorists waited to get on the bridges going into New York. My commute from that time on took over two hours because a 7-mile stretch leading to the George Washington Bridge took more than an hour to traverse due to the increase police surveillance on the bridge.

If you’re keeping track of the re-buliding of the WTC, you probably know that the steel installation of the Freedom Tower (One World Trade Center) has reached the 90th floor with 14 more floors to go before it reaches the top of the tower. Personally, I haven’t been down to the site since about 30 floors were in place. But if you’re also interested at this late date in the unbuilding of the WTC, Langewiesche has written a book on the subject (same title), which should be even more compelling than the 3-part article.

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