Author's debunking of NY fallen heroes causes outcry

By ERIC BURROUGHS

NEW YORK - More than a year after the September 11 attacks, United States journalist and author William Langewiesche has discovered how volatile emotions remain over the firefighters killed in the World Trade Centre.

Working with unfettered access to the site for months, Langewiesche has written a gritty book about the huge cleanup that challenges the lionisation of firefighters while praising all the workers who cleared the site.

The Atlantic Monthly correspondent says his book, - American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Centre, tries to tell the story of exactly what he saw take place in the chaotic, emotional operation amid millions of tonnes of debris.

"What I saw was much more interesting and hopeful than the propaganda," Langewiesche says.

"I was writing what I saw in a conversation with my readers in utter frankness."

He depicts in stark detail the drama - including fisticuffs between police and firefighters - and the daunting engineering challenges of removing rubble safely from the 6.5ha site that became known as "the pile".

But his account has stirred a storm of criticism.

The book includes allegations that firefighters, who lost 343 of their own, looted jeans from a Gap store before the buildings fell. It also describes how they favoured honouring the remains of firefighters before those of police or civilians.

Firefighters and their supporters have unleashed a torrent of outrage against the book, originally a 60,000-word, three-part series in the Atlantic Monthly.

Langewiesche says the outcry resulted from trying to portray an alternative to the heroic view of fallen firefighters. "That emotion has been heavily indulged in the US and not to indulge it is to invite attack."

Rhonda Roland Shearer, the widow of palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, an artist and World Trade Centre volunteer, has led the charge against Langewiesche's reporting, with the backing of senior fire and police officials.

She has published a rebuttal and demanded that the book be recalled.

The biggest controversy surrounds Langewiesche's description of workers finding new jeans in one fire-engine being dug out of the rubble, suggesting looting began even before the towers fell.

The New York City Fire Department fired off a letter to the Atlantic Monthly calling that anecdote inaccurate and saying Langewiesche was trying to "substantiate unfounded myths".

"Langewiesche ... should not have tarnished the memory of our city's heroes with foolish, unfounded and absurd accusations."

Both the magazine and Langewiesche stand behind the article.

The writer says editing included a tortuous five months of fact-checking.

Langewiesche writes that hero worship of firefighters, combined with their grief, worked like a "low-grade narcotic. It did not intoxicate them, but it skewed their view".

Of the cleanup, he writes: "All of these people found themselves in a world of chaos, and they rose to meet that challenge time and time again."

- REUTERS

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