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An Architect Reflects on 9-11
I guess that September 11, 2001, will be one of those days you will remember exactly where you were and what you were doing. Not unlike when the Challenger blew up, when President Kennedy was shot, or when Pearl Harbor was attacked. I think that all these dates had such a profound affect on American history that anyone of a knowing age will never forget just exactly how they felt when they heard the news.
My wife and I had been married only a year and a half, and our oldest daughter was only 8 months old. I had been granted my Registration as an Architect a few months before, on July 2nd. I was in the middle of teaching a structural preparatory course for the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE), a course that I had developed and had been teaching for a number of years. At that time our classes were held on Saturdays, and the Saturday class before was quite normal and uneventful. Tuesday, the 11th was an election day for the City of Phoenix, and I was planning to go to an election night party for several of our Council Members. So I got up at 6:00 AM as I did every work morning and turned on the local news for my morning briefing of the events of the last day. Very shortly after it started, BAM!!!! One of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York was on fire. The reports were so sketchy and contradictory; it was hard to figure out just what had happened. I stopped getting ready for work and watched in astonishment and amazement. Not long after tuning in, flying in from the left side of the screen, a commercial plane hit the second tower. WOW!!! I could not believe my eyes. Then we were informed the Pentagon had been attacked. Was this the beginning of World War III? Shortly after that news, I sat there watching as the south tower collapsed, 56 minutes after it had been hit. The north tower followed suit shortly there after. Then a report of Flight 93, that had been hi-jacked and missing crashes into a field in Pennsylvania. I left for work, numb, fearful, would I see my wife and baby girl at the end of the day? What the hell would happen next?
When I arrived at work, a small TV had been tuned into the news and this was the topic being talked about both on TV and in the office. The immediate reports feared tens of thousand had been killed in the collapse of these two towers. Sensory overload. It was impossible to process all the information coming out at that time. By the end of the day, numbness gave way to the surreal. The FAA grounded all flights. There was an eerie quietness to the skies for 3 days as air traffic had been completely grounded. Even in a large City, like Phoenix, the quiet skies were noticeable and disconcerting. The election night gathering was somber, and in the background on most every TV around was continuing coverage of the day's events. We spent Saturday's class talking about the towers collapse, never did cover what we were supposed to that week. One of the things we discussed was why the buildings fell on themselves and not toppled over the side when they were hit. Since I essentially grew up as an Architect, that question at first sounded strange to me. Knowing how buildings are designed, we never want the building to topple over in a catastrophic event. That would make a single collapse even a larger catastrophic event. Now hundreds of thousands of lives would now be imperil as a building tips over. Imagine what the kill radius of a building almost 1,400 feet would be. The standards of localized and controlled collapse go back to standards that I studied in 1983 as I first prepared to take my ARE. These were standards that buildings were supposed to be designed under for at least several years earlier, at the very least. A week after that later, Phoenix sent their FEMA team to ground zero, and on it was a Structural Engineer I knew, Tom Wandrie, a plan reviewer with the City of Phoenix. Tom has been the building official for the City of Phoenix the last few years. He spent a week there during the clean up of ground zero.
Weeks later, as the casualty numbers and other information were becoming clearer, it became possible to do some analysis. Based on what had been said, I did some math to find out that on any given workday hour, those two towers housed around 50,000 people. Some 2,700 people lost their lives when the buildings collapsed. About 500 of those were EMS workers that went into the building after the catastrophic event began. The death toll for those OCCUPIED buildings was only about 4%. I do not want to devalue any of the lives lost that day, but it is amazing to me, that 30-year-old technology had been so efficient that it was able to evacuate like 96% of the buildings' occupants before catastrophic collapse. That is why the initial news reports were projected tens of thousands of deaths. Subsequent studies and reports have shown that the majority of deaths occurred to those trapped above the impact floors, as the two large jets had severed their means of escape.
In the week leading up to this anniversary, I watched many programs on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, and others. Since these events, my wife will tell you, I have gotten very bent out of shape when I heard people like Rosie O'Donnell claim that the collapse of these towers was "an inside job" because they fell on themselves. Are you S#%!*$#@ me! What the hell training is she making this judgment off of? She is nothing more than an entertainer. Where is her engineering background? I got even more inflamed as I watched some of these "conspiracy theory" programs that was aired in the week leading to this anniversary. One of them had an "Architect" on, Mr. Richard Gage spouting off. Far be it from me to call out another "Professional", but after hearing him, my first question is WHO IS PAYING YOUR BILLS? He sounds like one of those "hired guns" prostituting his profession for monetary gain. One of the first things taught in our training (and tested, at least when I took the test) was the knowledge and understanding that steel loses strength, and will deform, when exposed to heat. That is why the building code requires structural steel to be thermally insulated. Steel does NOT have to be exposed to melting temperatures to deform and fail. There are countless test from Underwriters Laboratories, Factory Mutual, and Ohio State University that proves this. These are all agencies that have completed fire testing on assemblies. So where does Mr. Gage get off with contradicting science? Does he know something that the rest of the world does not know? Is he trying to tell us that he is an Einstein? Bless my britches and kiss my grits.
I know this is a very emotional issue. If I had a loved one perish in these events, I sure would not want their memory dishonored. Let us not dishonor these lost lives by perpetuating lies for our own benefit. As I said in a previous hub just because someone is Registered, that does not necessarily mean that they are correct. Check other opinions, if this one stands alone, opposite other professionals, then maybe this is not the most accurate. What we need to take away from the events of September 11, 2001, is that American technology is still superior, even at 30 years old. That is the only reason that the initial reports of tens of thousands dead fail to come to pass. That is the true legacy of the American spirit.
© 2009 Dan Demland