Monday, September 11, 2017


     [The following first appeared at Eternity Road on September 11, 2003. -- FWP]

     On September 11, 2001, two airliners rammed into two office towers and, ultimately, destroyed them. How did that happen? Office towers are exceptionally strong structures. Wouldn't it take a hellish explosion to cause them to collapse as they did?

     Well, yes and no. The Twin Towers were built around a central support spine and an extended web of struts from that spine. If the struts could be made to give way, the buildings would fall. The total energy release of the airliners' impacts was quite sufficient. Here are the numbers:

  • Approximate gross weight of each airliner: 50 tons, or about 50,000 kilograms.
  • Approximate speed of airliners on impact: 300 knots, or about 150 meters/sec.
  • Approximate fuel load of each airliner: 5 tons.

     The kinetic energy released by the impact alone comes to about 560 million joules: roughly the explosive energy of 200 pounds of TNT. That's equivalent to about 133 million calories of heat, which is enough to turn over a ton of ice to steam -- instantly.

     But it wasn't principally the impacts that brought down the Twin Towers. Had that been the case, they would have fallen sooner after they were struck. The killing blow was the heat transfer from the immense quantities of burning jet fuel, a highly energetic substance.

     Jet fuel is engineered to burn safely, and relatively slowly. A tremendous amount of thought and labor has gone into making it as safe as something that potent can possibly be made. And indeed, on Black Tuesday two years ago today, we watched it burn for nearly an hour before Two World Trade Center surrendered to its fury.

     I won't bore you with the calculations about the energy released by the burning fuel. My rough estimate is that each airliner's fuel load contributed another 4 billion joules, or roughly 1 billion calories of heat, to the twin infernos in lower Manhattan. Thus, after impact, each building absorbed enough heat to flash ten tons of ice instantly into steam, over the course of about an hour. And of course, that doesn't count the heat released by burning materials from the Towers themselves

     The support webs that radiated from the spines of the Twin Towers could not possibly have withstood such a conflagration. No building built to office standards could have done so.

     On board those two airliners were many innocent passengers. No doubt they were filled with apprehension from the start of the hijacking, but they probably assumed it was just another attempt to extort ransoms or political concessions from Washington. They could not possibly have imagined the fate they would meet, until the profiles of the Twin Towers swelled in the aircraft's windows.

     Imagine being one of those doomed passengers, peering through the window at the looming Manhattan skyline. What would you have felt? Rage? Terror? Regret? How much time would you have had, between the realization of what was to happen and the conclusion of your life, for any reaction to form in your mind? Perhaps not enough to register anything beyond a general bafflement. The last mile of that fatal flight would have occupied only ten seconds or so, during which full comprehension of what was to come would likely have eluded you.

     Had anyone been looking back through the window at you, he probably would have seen only a puzzled frown.

     Did any of the occupants of the Towers look out their windows and see the planes approaching? I have no idea. But if they did, if they saw anything the human mind could make sense of, they must have shared the passengers' incomprehension. Their faces would have reflected the same look of puzzlement tinged with disbelief.

     The hijackers, of course, knew what was to come. They'd indulged in extended debauches in the weeks before, reaping a last crop of earthly pleasures before embarking on their trip to Hell. Yet even they must have felt some fear of the end they'd chosen. So hot was their rage against a society that had rejected their murderous Islamic creed yet towered so high above their miserable stature that they couldn't dream of equalling its least achievements, that the only expression we can paint onto their faces in imaginative retrospect is a snarl of hatred.

     The most painful faces to picture are those of the three thousand men and women who fell with the Towers.

     To the end they must have struggled to nurture a thread of hope. There were firemen and policemen moving heaven and earth to save them. There were more emergency vehicles in sight than had ever massed in a body on Manhattan's streets. There were thousands of onlookers, all of them wishing and praying for the firemen's success at quenching the blazes and retrieving those who were trapped above.

     None of it availed.

     What must have started as shock turned quickly to fear, then to determination to survive. As the minutes ticked by, and the hope of rescue faded, some of those faces must have cracked into terminal terror, while others set into lines of resignation, acceptance, and the resolve to die well.

     Some chose the embrace of gravity, forced open the windows, and leaped to their deaths. Others fell to the searing heat and choking fumes. The last victims were crushed by the Towers themselves, as their integrity failed in a textbook "pancake" collapse, the floors above destroying those below them as they fell.

     About one group of faces I can speak with authority. I have no need to imagine them.

     I was in the World Trade Center for the last time in early June, for a job interview with Cantor Fitzgerald. The personnel officer who greeted me ushered me into his 103rd floor office, and smiled as I gawked at the Hudson River view through his picture window. His expression was benevolent, if a trifle amused. It said they all do that, and required no interpretation.

     His name was Scott. He was an uncommonly nice fellow with a sunny, open face, a fine, enthusiastic salesman for the virtues of his employer. He was one of the three thousand who died on Black Tuesday.

     In a sense, I watched him die, for I watched the disaster as it accelerated. I saw the second plane hit Two World Trade Center, after which it was certain that we were witnessing a terrorist attack. Given the target, there was no doubt where the blame should fall. When One World Trade Center collapsed, I thought of Scott, and the other Cantor employees with whom I'd interviewed three months earlier, and I wept.

     I spent the remainder of the day in a state better imagined than described. Suffice it to say that the whole Islamic world was supremely fortunate that Fran Porretto was not the Commander-In-Chief of America's armed forces on Black Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

     All the others with whom I had the good fortune to keep company that day were of the same mind. The universal sentiment among them was that mere death would be infinitely too good for those who had done this to their fellow citizens, their neighbors, their brethren and friends. You didn't have to ask them to know it. It shone from their faces like a nuclear flash, only much more sustained.

     Other faces have become prominent in the days since then, most notably Osama bin Laden, architect of the atrocity and mastermind-financier of al-Qaeda, Islam's world-girdling terror network, and George W. Bush, whose job it was to hunt bin Laden down. Many others, some already well known and some rising from obscurity on the wings of calamity, have entered our national panorama to contribute to what's been inaccurately called the War on Terror.

     We do not make war on terror. We make war on those who seek to inflict it. To call them "terrorists" is to assign them an intention, not an identity. To pursue them and visit our wrath upon them, we must know who they are -- the thing they most ardently hope to conceal from us.

     We must learn all their names and faces.

     There is no doubt that we will prevail. Islam's terrorists are puny men, drawn from a failed race and devoted to a failed ideology. They couldn't have harmed us at all without first stealing four civilian airliners with which to do it. Against the will and power of the United States, they have no chance at all. To dedicate ourselves to their pursuit and destruction is the ultimate tribute to those whose lives they took, the most fitting remembrance we the living could give them.

     What a fulfillment it will be when we can assemble a complete collection of faces for our national hall of infamy -- the terrorists, their planners, their financiers, their state sponsors, and every miserable creature on Earth who ever gave them sustenance or encouragement -- and annotate each one with the single word:


     Never forget.


Linda Fox said...

I've been thinking about the slow process of getting ready for war. It tamped down the anger - too many people, even a few months later, were waffling on what the 'appropriate response' should be.

If there is another incident of that magnitude, the RIGHT response would be to send in some IMMEDIATE missiles. Commit to a war, right away, and initiate action ASAP.

Make it clear from the beginning - this is war until they surrender, unconditionally. We will NOT be occupying those countries, we will only be taking action, if they do not IMMEDIATELY.

For example, Pakistan - should have been given 1 week to find - and turn over to us - Bin Laden.

ALL of the mosques that supported him - closed.

All of the imans that supported Wahhabism - jailed. Killing optional, but NOT released. If they got out, ALL of the employees of that jail would be given life sentences.

Terrorist cells - gone.

Then, Pakistan might be permitted to TRY to get back into our good graces.

Same with all other countries that permit, and even export, that crap.

James said...

Of those who fell that day this is one who should be always remembered: