Posts tagged ‘WTC’

Ten Years Ago Today

Ten years ago, for the first and only time in my life, I invited my wife to come along on a business trip from Seattle to New York.

On 9/11, I was sitting in the restaurant at the W hotel in Midtown Manhattan having breakfast with some bankers. I had recently been hired to see if I could make something out of a startup that was trying to manage aircraft parts sales and inventories over the web. My incredibly ill-timed pitch to the bankers was that the commercial aviation business, which had been somewhat in the doldrums, was on the verge of a turnaround. Oops.

My wife came down to breakfast to tell us something funny was going on in the news. We ended up going to one of the banker's hotel rooms -- he had a penthouse suite with a balcony from which we watched the now-famous and horrible events play out.

The rest of the day was odd to say the least. People on the street flinched whenever a plane flew over. The entire island emptied out, such that in the evening, we walked through Times Square and not a single care came through in 5 minutes. Someone was skateboarding in lazy circles, I suppose just because he could.

For us, 9/11 fortunately was only a hassle. We scrambled to find someone to watch our kids in Seattle, and found the last rent car in the city and ended up driving all the way back to Seattle from New York. We still made it back before air travel resumed.

Many of our friends were not so lucky. As both my wife and I were grads of the Harvard Business School, we knew scores of people who worked in the WTC. Over the coming weeks, word floated in of friends that had died that day, including our friend Steve who did not work there but got talked into going to a training session he really did not want to be at. I actually think of him many times, when I am asked to do tedious business trips I see not value in. I have learned to skip a lot of them. Life is too short.

Man on Wire

This Reason cover spurred me to watch a movie I had wanted to see for a while called "Man on Wire" about Philippe Petit, who snuck up to the top of the World Trade Center, strung a line between the buildings, and tight-rope walked 110 stories up.  It is a great story, and you get to see a man who is a true eccentric, not to mention being either fearless or totally nuts.   He is exactly the kind of person with an eccentric but harmless passion who tends to be crushed by an ever-more intrusive state.

By the way, the movie is also a homage to the WTC, including a lot of construction footage and skyscraper porn.

So, We Are All to Blame

I blame the English and all of us in the media for the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan.  If we had just stuck with "New Amsterdam" rather than having the name forcibly changed to New York by Anglo chauvinists, the WTC would never have been attacked.  We all conspired in this tragedy by continuing to call it "New York."

Crazy?  I would have thought so, but apparently this logic is quite in vogue


Postscript:  I find it moderately hilarious to see folks on the left defending names imposed by western colonialists over indigenous names.  But if it makes us Westerners to blame for terrorism, I guess it's in a good cause.

Rosie O'Donnell and the Failure of Scientific Education

Rosie O'Donnell is a great example of the failure of scientific education in this country.  Of late, Rosie has joined the "truthers," using her show to flog the notion that the WTC was brought down in a government-planned controlled demolition.

I will have to yield to Popular Mechanics for most of the discussion about WTC7.  However, I can, from my own engineering training, rebut one point on WTC1&2.  (Note again, future commenters, this applies to WTC 1&2.  There was a different dynamic at work in WTC 7).

Rosie, as others have, made a point of observing that jet fuel does not burn hot enough to melt steel, and therefore the fire in the main towers could not have caused the structure to yield and collapse.  This is absurd.  It is a kindergartener's level of science.  It is ignorant of a reality that anyone who has had even one course in structural engineering or metallurgy will understand.  The argument made that "other buildings have burned and not collapsed" is only marginally more sophisticated, sort of equivalent to saying that seeing an iceberg melts proves global warming.  (Note that this is all written by a person who has no faith in government and is at least as suspicious about government motivations at any truther).   

Here is the reality that most 19-year-old engineering students understand:  Steel loses its strength rapidly with temperature, losing nearly all of its structural strength by 1000 degrees F, well below its melting point but also well below the temperature of burning jet fuel.  For three years I designed piping and pressure vessel enclosures at a refinery.  Many of the processes in a refinery crave heat and run better at elevated temperatures.  In fact, what refineries can do, and how efficient they can be, is really limited by the strength of steel at high temperatures.  Refineries end up being limited to process temperatures no higher than 600 to 800 degrees, and even then these require expensive special metallurgies.  Anything higher requires a very expensive vessel lined with some sort of ceramic insulation material.

The strength curve of steel vs. temperature is dependent on the type of steel, but the curve below is about what I remember from my old textbooks.  Note by 930 degrees the steel strength has dropped by half and in the next 100 degrees it halves again.

Steel

But the proof of what went wrong in WTC1 and WTC2 does not take a college education.  You only have to look at building codes.  Building codes generally require that structural steel members be coated with a fireproofing material

As the critical temperature for steel is around 540°C (give or take, depending on whose country's test standards one reads at the time), and design basis fires
reach this temperature within a few minutes, structural steel requires
external insulation in order to prevent the steel from absorbing enough
energy to reach this temperature. First, steel expands, when heated,
and once enough energy has been absorbed, it softens and loses its
structural integrity. This is easily prevented through the use of fireproofing.

You have probably seen it- that foamy tan stuff sprayed on girders before the rest of the building is filled out.  In fact, this stuff is not fireproofing per se but insulation.  It is there to keep the structural steel cool during a fire, so the steel will not fail.  Generally the standards are set in the code that the insulation has to be able to stand X time of fire (generally several hours) and keep the steel below its critical yielding temperatures.   Engineers know that a building fire, which burns much cooler than a jet fuel fire, can cause steel members to weaken and fail and the building to collapse.  If this were not the case, then why do builders spend billions every year to insulate structural steel building components?? 

I wrote about this issue in more depth here.  In this post, one of the commenters listed a series of building fires and asked, why did these buildings not collapse?  The answer is:  Because insulation is applied to the building structural steel members to try to prevent the collapse.  Even insulation is just a stopgap -- if the fire burns long enough and
hot enough (or if the insulation is stripped off, say by an airplane
shearing through the building) then the steel will heat up and fail.   So there are three reasons that some buildings have fires and don't fail while the WTC did fail:

  • Some building fires can and do cause buildings to collapse.  Insulation on steel members help many buildings to survive, and often does save the building from collapse, but not always.  This building did collapse, at least the top 6 stores.  Oddly, this is actually used by truthers as further proof, somehow, that the WTC fires could not have brought down the building (the link is actually one of their web sites, I think).  But in fact, the Madrid building failed the same way as WTC 1 and 2, with the top six floors collapsing.  Since the building was not fully constructed on these top floors, there was not the huge weight collapsing that created the battering ram effect that brought down the WTC.  The Madrid floors took longer to collapse, but they were 1) under far less stress, since the building above them was not complete; 2) the fire burned much cooler and 3) the insulation had not been mechanically scrubbed from the beams, so it took longer for the beams to heat up.  To me, this is a clear parallel to the official version of the WTC collapse, but even this is distorted somehow by the truthers.
  • Fuel burns hotter than normal building fires, so even insulated members will heat up faster.  I have many pictures in my personal collection of refinery fires where the main thing you can see in the aftermath is all the structural steel bent and collapsed.  Truthers may not be able to find many examples of building collapsing in a fire, but you would be hard-pressed NOT to find examples of collapsed structural steel at every refinery and petrochemical fire.
  • The insulation that normally protects buildings was stripped off by the mechanical action of an enormous airplane shearing through the building at 300 miles an hour. 

This is in addition to the actual removal of some support columns by the crashing aircraft, which put more load on the remaining structure and thereby hastened the collapse.

postscript: By the way, can anyone tell me why the so called "reality-based"
community, that so often criticizes the Right for theocratic attacks on
science, is so quick to fall for this pseudo-scientific junk?

Update: One other thought:  The hallmark of truthers is that they take small abnormalities or uncertainties in the failure analysis and event reconstruction as justification for throwing out the whole explanation of events in favor of an alternate series of events with much, much larger gaps, contradictions, and logical problems (e.g. how did the buildings get wired for demolition without anyone noticing? or, how did the planes manage to crash into the precise floors wired for demolition without dislodging the charges and their wiring?  or, how did such a massive conspiracy get pulled off without one leak when the administration can't even competently fire 9 US attorneys?)

Anyone who has ever done root cause analysis of a catastrophic failure knows there are always questions no one can answer when all is said and done.  And people who say things like "always happen" or "can never happen" typically don't have any real-world engineering experience.

Update2: One other thought on WTC7, since most of the sites I have visited over the last several days really seem to focus on WTC7.  I consider our government capable of all kinds of hijinx, but why WTC7?  I would argue that about 0.00001% of the outrage that resulted from 9/11 is attributable to WTC7.  How many people not associated with the truthers have even heard of WTC7?  In fact, one could argue that the strike on the Pentagon was effectively irrelevant, since no one really even seems to remember that one.

One minor note:  I saw on a conspiracy site the claim that all military planes were ordered to stand down on 9/11.  I know from personal experience that can't possibly be true.  I was in Manhattan during 9/11 and remember well people in the streets hitting the ground in fear every time a military jet rocketed over the city.

I don't buy all this conspiracy theory not because I think well of the government, but just the opposite.  I consider the conspiracies posited at these various sites to be orders of magnitude beyond this government's capabilities.  Remember Coyote's Law:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

Update3:  I guess I need to throw out a few more things.  This was not meant to be a comprehensive or definitive rebuttal of the 9/11 conspiracy theories.  I merely used as a starting point one stupid comment by Rosie O'Donnell on melting, a comment I have heard a lot of times, and that I knew I could refute of my own knowledge.  Those who want to get mad at me because I did not refute this or that, sorry, go deal with the book by the Popular Mechanics guys.  The only other thing I can contribute other than engineering sanity is the fact I have participated in many engineering failure analyses and the fact that I watched the towers fall live, with my own eyes, from the streets of Manhattan.

Every single engineering failure analysis I have ever participated in, from refinery explosions to airplane crashes, has always left unanswered questions and nagging inconsistencies that had, I am sure, nothing to do with conspiracies. We had many things we could never explain about a heat exchanger fire at our refinery in 1985, but I don't think that those unknowns and uncertainties leave the door open to blame government agents for the fire. 

I'll say again, if you want to argue that the WTC buildings were demoed by explosives, you have to explain how the explosives were laid, and, more important, how the explosives and their delicate wiring and detonators survived a plane crashing into the same floors.  And by the way, given that the buildings had not external markings showing the floors, how did the people flying the airplanes hit the exact correct parts of the building?  For every problem with the core hypothesis I could name 10 problems with the truther alternative.  I have no problem with offering an alternative hypothesis to the original thesis, but it is silly to criticize the core thesis for small problems only to replace it with a hypothesis that has problems that are orders of magnitude larger.

Coyote's Law and 9/11

I am just amazed at how much bad science and ignorance gets pored into current 9/11 conspiracy theories.  For example, someone apparently did a small bit of research and found that structural steel melts at a higher temperature than aviation fuel burns.  From these two facts, each correct in the right context, comes the whole theory that the WTC towers came down in a controlled demolition rather than a collapse of fire-weakened structural members.  Of course, this is stupid. 

I did piping and boiler design for several years at a refinery.  Carbon steel, while it may not actually melt until you get it up to thousands of degrees, loses most of its structural strength between 700 and 1000 degrees(F), well below the temperatures in the WTC fires.  I lived with this frustrating fact every day, since many refinery processes crave higher temperatures.  Not only does steel's strength drop with higher temperatures, but it falls exponentially once it passes a certain threshold.  Some day soon I will post my refinery fire pictures, and show huge steel I-beam structures that collapsed from the heat of petroleum fires.  But here is a good reality check:  If skyscraper I-beams really won't fail at jet-fuel-fire temperatures, why do skyscraper builders waste millions of dollars insulating all the structural steel against building fires, which I can assure you burn much cooler than aviation fuel fires?

Beyond the basic science, most 9/11 conspiracy theories violate a couple of smell-tests.  The first and most obvious is Occam's razor.  Any theory that uses as a starting point a few small, minor uncertainties in events and explains these uncertainties with theories that have new, massive uncertainties in them is not necessarily wrong, but one has to treat it with huge dollops of skepticism.  As Jesse Walker described 9/11 cospiracy folks in Reason's Hit and Run, "They're the sort of people who will question whether a plane actually
hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, but won't question a theory
that can't explain just where the hijacked aircraft landed instead."

The other smell-test I use is a law I have dubbed Coyote's Law, and it goes like this:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

Does anyone really believe that a Bush administration that can't keep a program involving a dozen people secret could keep the lid on a conspiracy this massive involving hundreds of people from any number of government agencies?  Isn't incompetence a more compelling answer here?

Alexander Cockburn thinks so, as quoted in Reason's Hit and Run:

One characteristic of the nuts is that they have a devout, albeit
preposterous belief in American efficiency, thus many of them start
with the racist premise that "Arabs in caves" weren't capable of the
mission. They believe that military systems work the way Pentagon press
flacks and aerospace salesmen say they should work. They believe that
at 8.14 am, when AA flight 11 switched off its radio and transponder,
an FAA flight controller should have called the National Military
Command center and NORAD. They believe, citing reverently (this is from
high priest Griffin) "the US Air Force's own website," that an F-15
could have intercepted AA flight 11 "by 8.24, and certainly no later
than 8.30."

They appear to have read no military history, which is too bad
because if they did they'd know that minutely planned operations -- let
alone responses to an unprecedented emergency -- screw up with
monotonous regularity, by reason of stupidity, cowardice, venality,
weather and all the other whims of providence....

August Bebel said anti-Semitism is the socialism of the fools. These
days the 9/11 conspiracy fever threatens to become the "socialism" of
the left, and the passe-partout of many libertarians.

By the way, can anyone tell me why the so called "reality-based" community, that so often criticizes the Right for theocratic attacks on science, is so quick to fall for this pseudo-scientific junk?

Update:  In case anyone cares, here is the temperature curve for the strength of carbon steel.

Steel

Update 2:  I am told by email that I will now be added to the long and growing list of those who are part of the conspiracy.  Cool!  Please make sure the CIA spells my name right on my payoff check.

Update3: And don't miss James Meigs here.

In every single case, we found that the
very facts used by conspiracy theorists to support their fantasies are
mistaken, misunderstood or deliberately falsified.

Here's one
example: Meyssan and hundreds of Web sites cite an eyewitness who said
the craft that hit the Pentagon looked "like a cruise missile with
wings." Here's what that witness, a Washington, D.C., broadcaster named
Mike Walter, actually told CNN: "I looked out my window and I
saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I
thought, 'This doesn't add up. It's really low.' And I saw it. I mean,
it was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and
slammed right into the Pentagon."

We talked to Walter and,
like so many of the experts and witnesses widely quoted by conspiracy
theorists, he told us he is heartsick to see the way his words have
been twisted: "I struggle with the fact that my comments will forever
be taken out of context."

 

Best 9/11 Footage

This is the best footage I have ever seen of the death of the WTC towers on 9/11, apparently just released by the folks who shot it from their apartment window.  I guess you can add these poor folks to the list of targets for conspiracy nut stalkers.

Five Years Ago

Five years ago today, I was in Manhattan on a business trip with my wife.  I almost never take my wife on business trips, but we had been living in Seattle for several years, and my wife, who had lived in NYC for years, wanted to go back and visit.

About 7:30 AM, I went down to breakfast in the W Hotel, where I was staying.  I was working at the time for an aviation startup, and in one of the great moments of bad timing, I was in New York that day to make presentations to investors, the theme of which was that commercial aviation was in the midst of a recovery, and the time was right to invest in a commercial aviation venture. 

Part way into breakfast, my wife came down to find me, and tell us we needed to see what was on TV.  We went up to one of my investor's rooms.  He had a terraced penthouse (its good to be the king) from which we watched the disaster unfold, with CNN on in the background.

The next 24 hours were among the weirdest of my life.  For a while, we actually tried to hold our scheduled meetings, but a number of attendees had friends and family who worked in the WTC, and we called it off.  I wandered the streets of Manhattan, where bizarre rumors were flying at every street corner.  People ducked in fear every time an airplane rushed over, by this time all air force fighter planes.  By noon, dust-covered people walking up from downtown got to our area, and streamed past for the rest of the day.  Strangely, I actually ran into a friend of mine who had the last Hertz rent-a-car in the city, and we made plans to drive out of the city the next day.

Phone and cell service were spotty, but we eventually got through to the person taking care of our kids back in Seattle as well as our parents.  I had not told my mom we were in NYC, so she began our call by saying "I'm so glad all my kids are no where near NY" and I had to tell her, "Uhh, mom..."

That night was like a scene out of some Charlton Heston post-apocalypse movie.  Police were only letting cars out of the island, not back onto it, so by nightfall the city was empty and dead quiet.  We finally found a restaurant in Times Square open, and the Square was empty.  There was maybe one car driving through every few minutes.  A few roller bladers where skating around Times Square, just because they could.

The next day we played find the exit from Manhattan.  We knew from various reports that there was at least one bridge off the island open, but from either confusion or misplaced security concerns, no one seemed to know which bridge.  We began to circumnavigate Manhattan, looking for an exit.  Finally, a police officer told us the only way out was to drive all the way north through Harlem on the surface streets and get on what I think was the GW bridge.  Anyway, that is what we did (finding out in the process that Harlem was not the hell-hole that gets portrayed in movies, at least the part we saw).  I have never, ever been so happy to get to New Jersey.  I wanted to kiss the ground.  Of course, we still had a short drive to Seattle ahead of us, but that was anti-climactic.

It was only later I began learning how many people I knew died in those buildings that day.  I guess I should have thought about it, given the schools I attended.  The death toll for Harvard Business School graduates alone was staggering.  Five years later, watching the retrospectives, nothing about that day seems any less horrible.  Time, at least for me, has not softened the magnitude of this disaster. 

The only silver lining I can come up with is that we have gone five years without a major terrorist attack on this country, though other's have been attacked.  Walking around on September 12, we were all sure that this was just the front-end of a wave of massive attacks.  So far, whether through luck or skill, we have avoided this fate. 

One thing I will say is that we always prepare for the last attack.  We have spent a lot of time making sure no terrorists can take over a plane with toenail clippers and fly it into another building.   But that kind of attack was obsolete 20 minutes after the second plane hit the WTC -- It didn't even work on United 93.

Does it Bother Anyone Else...

Does it bother anyone else that the only complaint voiced in this article about government requirements for building in surveillance backdoors into the Internet is about the cost?

Oh, and by the way, note the date on the act in question.  1994 makes it a Clinton-era law crafted after the first attempt to bomb the WTC.  All of you Democrats who feel smugly certain that civil liberties will be safe if only your party was in charge should note how closely the Patriot Act resembles Clinton's proposed anti-terrorism bill.  Just as Republicans have found that politicians shed their small government talk once they are in charge, our country's leadership tends to abandon any past queasiness about trampling on civil liberties once in a position of power, no matter what party they represent.

Scrappleface: White House to Boost Empathy Statements

via Scrappleface:

As one unnamed reporter put it, "In the hours immediately following the disaster, millions of people in Thailand, India, Indonesia, Somalia and elsewhere turned their eyes toward America to discover whether the president would rush back to Washington D.C. and empathize with their plight. But Bush stayed in Crawford and made just one official statement, as U.S. military planes surveyed the damaged area and Air Force C-130 cargo planes with humanitarian goods headed for the region. It's as if Bush thinks that action is a substitute for news conferences."

LOL.  I have always hated the empathy dance after disasters, particularly the now required visit by the President to the disaster site.  What is he going to do?  The visit to the WTC site soon after the attack on 9/11 had value because it made a statement about security that gave confidence to people that they could return to Manhattan.  Why is it necessary, though, to tour hurricane damage by helicopter?  Isn't that the experts job? 

We had a number of our operations in Florida shut down for weeks after the recent hurricanes there.  Several of my friends asked me if I was going to go visit the damage.  "What for" I asked?  The damage had been described to me, and the folks in charge there who knew the area had a good plan in place for fixing things.  If I showed up, work would have to stop for a day while everyone showed me around.  The time to go back is after it is cleaned up, when you can thank everyone for their hard work.  But of course, I didn't have to deal with the media editorializing on my heartlessness because I didn't run to Florida and sight-see the damage.

Be Careful Forwarding those Emails!: II

OK, today I got an email from yet another associate that claims that the US Government is making up the story that the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11. Again, please Google these things and check Snopes or urban legends or FactCheck.org before you send them to me. The Snopes article on this one is here.

Presumably, since it is ludicrous to think that the feds could gen this event up within minutes of the WTC attacks, the proponents of this theory must also believe the WTC attack was faked or staged or created by the US Government. Beyond fever-swamp conspiracy theory lovers and rabid America-haters, I guess this also appeals to the reality avoiders who would like to believe that there are not islamo-fascists out there trying to kill us.

UPDATE

The Washington Post had an article on Internet conspiracy theories, including the Pentagon one mentioned above. The article also mentions this conspiracy was spread in part by a guy on his "libertarian web site". I have got to find some other name to call myself. Ayn Rand, who many libertarians (including myself) admire, always hated being called a libertarian. I start to understand why. There is a difference between wanting smaller government and living in constant X-files type paranoia about what vile plots the government is hatching.