September 11th is in the news today. An engineering report on why the towers fell. The kind of news that I miss so much it hurts - a cold hard look at the facts:
NEW YORK, April 5 -- The hijacked airplanes that struck the World Trade Center hit with such force that the resulting explosions blew the fireproofing off the steel columns, accelerating heat buildup and weakening the structural core -- contributing to the towers' eventual collapse, according to a report issued Tuesday.
I lived in NYC on 9/11 and throughout the following year. I couldn't stomach television news afterwards and only allowed myself to view the disaster footage when PBS aired a NOVA documentary on the engineering of the towers and analyzed the collapse. That was more than 6 months later...
It took me 6 months to watch videotape of the attacks on purpose. NOVA
ran an excellent documentary called "Why the Towers Fell"
on PBS. All kinds of jargon about insulation and floor joists, heat and temperature. Cool graphics. It made the pictures of bodies leaping a thousand feet to their death almost palatable. Almost. My best friend is a Civil Engineer. He told me he watched from his office in Chicago and told everyone that the buildings would collapse because of fire immediately. He told me he was sorry he was an engineer that day because he understood far too much about how and why buildings collapse
- far too much about fire and steel and the temperature at which things fail.
I spent 9/11 in a Keystone Kops effort to get out of Queens to Connecticut to be close to my family. I never made it off Long Island, the bridges were closed and I ended up watching news reports at a Chinese Restaurant in Flushing, trapped by traffic and the new phenomenon of HUMVEES speeding thru New York streets. I had slept through the attacks (Thank God). I was off that day and slept in. I woke up late and turned on the TV to find out if Roger Clemens had won the night before, he would have been 20-1 if he won, an impressive feat. But every channel had on some kind of gray smudge. When I finally figured out that was Manhattan on TV I ran outside to see the same gray smudge in my sky. The wind was blowing the gray smudge miles out to sea. That gray smudge was what used to be the World Trade Center. I found out later the game had been rained out.
I avoided the television news for months afterwards, it was just my way of dealing with things. Newspapers were OK but TV was just too graphic. I dealt with the aftermath of the attacks every day at work. I worked in Air Export and dealt with JFK Airport, the airlines, Customs and the FAA on a daily basis. One bright spot for me was 9/12. I worked with a wonderful woman named Isabella who when answering the umpteenth phone call of condolences from overseas blurted out "Don't you realize they attacked ALL OF US!". YEAH! That's what I felt, too! And NATO felt that way as well, invoking Article 5:
Article 5 is at the basis of a fundamental principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It provides that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.
This is the principle of collective defence.
Bush said "No, thanks".
Shortly after 9/11 my company began to leverage American Airlines, United Airlines, and every airline for ungodly low prices on air cargo, mostly because they could. Hardly anyone was flying anymore and the space that would have been taken up by luggage was now available for sale. We shipped freight to London by air for less than the cost of a truck from NY to Philly. Business ethics demands you get the lowest price for your customer, right? I would eventually quit the job but the stench of the whole thing hasn't quit me.
One month after the attacks Flight 587 crashed in Rockaway, Queens. It was turbulence, not terrorism, but nobody knew that at the time. I was so close I could see the plume of black smoke across Jamaica Bay. I wondered if it landed on anyone I knew. But the phones rang with clients wanting to know if their freight would move that day - JFK had closed (as it would many times after) as a security measure. I was still trying to see if the plane landed on my friend in Belle Harbor but people wanted to move their cargo. The President had told everybody to go about their business. Most people in my office thought it was terrorism in the moment. I'll never forget the women crying in the office - you couldn't reason with people about the plausibility of attacking an outbound flight to the Dominican Republic. People were scared to death. Personally, I thought a jet sucked a few seagulls into an engine. But the sight of the crying women was sadder than anything I have ever felt. They were just crushed - they wanted all the violent death to stop.
So today engineering is in the news again, with news of failed emergency stairwells and fire insulation. I like news like today - I hold on to it like a life raft. Just the facts for me today. I remember the Afghan War but something happened afterwards, something about WMD and Iraq. The stories in the paper stopped making sense. I wish everyone paid more attention to the engineering stories. One story from engineers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory stands out - something about the uses of aluminum tubes. I like engineering stories.
In reading about the attacks again I remember the visceral shock of the initial casualty estimates - 100,000 dead wasn't out of the question. Almost 4 years after the fact the figure of 2,986 dead seems like a smaller number than it did at the time or in the immediate aftermath. Al-Qaeda killed 2,986 people on that terrible day. Like Joe Stalin said "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." I can tell you all about Todd Beemer and Father Mychal Judge. Those stories resonate for good reason.
I'm a colder person than I was a few years ago in many ways. There's been so much abuse and exploitation of tragedy. 9/11 as merchandise. 9/11 as political campaign. Tourists in Manahattan asking for directions to Ground Zero with a big smile. I got burnt out. My heart isn't warmed anymore by a single story of valor, isn't warmed by a single story of courage, isn't warmed by a single story of charity. I'm a statistics man now. I wonder why we have invaded two countries and not one. That's 100% more countries invaded than it should have been. Statistics don't always lie.
So here we are in 2005 with so many official reports on what happened. My questions still have no answers - Why are we in Iraq? Where's Bin Laden? The Lancet study estimates 98,000 additional dead Iraqi civilians - a statistic. The Iraq Body Count lists 17,316 dead as of today - a statistic.
Or should I just remember this little girl?