Year Zero


by Jonathan Wallace

January 8, 2002

Year Zero is a series of essays mixing my personal account of September 11 and its aftermath with reflections on ethical, legal, political, religious and other implications. The essays are all collected here. You can also subscribe to the Year Zero mailing list here.

At one point in the mid-90's, when I was an obsessive fisherman, I spent several evenings fishing for stripers in the Hudson River at Battery Park City. To get there from my Broadway office, I walked right under the World Trade towers, but I never saw them. To hide something from me, you can make it tiny or build it so huge that it escapes the eye entirely.

A personal history of the World Trade Center

My relationship with the twin towers was always marginal, just as I was on the margins of the scene on September 11 when the two planes hit. I was eighteen the year they were completed so had previously known the skyline without them. In 1972, I was attending a branch of Brooklyn College located in a cavernous building in Borough Hall, and I would sometimes walk over to the Promenade after school and look at the famous view of the skyline from there. (When you see the Manhattan skyline in a television show or a movie, and see the twin towers in the background behind many other buildings, the shot was likely taken from the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. If the towers are closer to you, with only a thin line of lower rise buildings in front of them, the shot was taken from the Jersey side.) In May 1972, I went there with a girlfriend and we sat kissing on a bench for what would turn out to be the last time. The recently completed towers must have been opposite us, but I don't remember them, though I remember the day vividly because of the girl.

Within a year, I went up in the towers for the first time, dining at Windows on the World with some Brooklyn College faculty with whom I had become friendly. We hated the place; the food was late and cold, the waiters surly, and when we left a small tip the captain followed us out into the hallway and said fifteen percent would be more traditional. One thing we ordered were the quail eggs in aspic, which were distasteful to look at and not any better to eat. The New York Times food critic said they were too firmly set, like a glass paperweight.

The view from there was remarkable, though, like being in a stationary airplane. I can't say for certain that we felt the building sway and creak that day, though it is likely we did; the buildings, like most other very tall skyscrapers, were built to move gently in the wind, rather than resist it. At some point I also heard the various harmonies the wind created up there; the towers have been described as a giant pan pipe pointing up in the sky, played by the wind.

I may not have returned to the towers for six or seven more years, until I graduated law school. Then, on a real estate matter, I went up in the towers again for a negotiation session with an attorney for the New York State Tax Authority. As I recall, her office was so high up that we had to change elevators at the 41st floor to get to her; it is probable that that day we also felt the swaying of the building, a sensation I remember without being able to pin down the visit on which I felt it.

In February 1993, I was working in my office on lower Broadway when I heard an explosion. I thought it was probably a loud backfire from a truck in the street below; but when I looked out the window everyone outdoors was staring towards the World Trade towers, and all the pigeons were flying. A moment later I could see the smoke rising from the towers. A bomb had gone off in the parking complex underneath, blowing a hole five stories deep. The terrorists had intended to topple one building against the other, bringing them both down. One of them later said during his interrogation that he hoped to kill a quarter of a million people. Had the force of the blast gone upwards, as the terrorists intended, rather than being directed downwards by the structure, the building might have fallen.

Tony, a senior employee of the company, called out that his wife worked in the trade center, and left to go look for her. A half an hour later, his wife Joanne turned up, eight months' pregnant and covered with soot. She had walked down ninety smoky floors to escape the building.

Tony hadn't returned so I ran down to the site to look for him, but could not find him in the milling crowd. I saw many other smoke-injured people being helped by paramedics; the basement was still on fire. I went back to my office and Tony showed up at the office shortly after and was re-united with Joanne. Unlike many others who escaped that day (only six people were killed), Joanne did not go back to work at the trade center. Many others returned to their jobs there, to die eight years later.

I only remember one more visit to the upper reaches of tower one, almost twenty years after my meeting with the New York State tax attorney. However, I must have been there other times, for the sensation of changing elevators to get to the upper part of the tower is too familiar to me to be accounted for by only three visits in thirty years. It is likely that I went on other business with companies or people that have long since sunk to the muddy bottom of the lake of memory, leaving no trace except that elevator, the swaying and the harmonics of the wind.

Sometime in 2000, I visited a recruiter on the 84th floor of Tower One. In the lobby, I went through a very thorough and ineffectual security gauntlet, standing on line to be personally screened and then issued a pass which allowed me to go through a turnstile to the elevator. We sat at a sturdy oak conference table and spoke about a job for which I was not qualified. After September 11th, I tried to find out what happened to him, with no luck so far. That is the last time I was in either of the towers.

In June 2001, I started a temporary job in Newark, and took the PATH train for the first time from the concourse beneath the trade center. For the next three months, this was my daily routine. The huge underground space contained no benches, no public areas for resting or lounging whatever, only people moving from the PATH to the stores and out to the subway or street, and vice versa. I don't like crowds and don't usually go to malls, but I found the concourse impressive. Perhaps I am nostalgic for it because it no longer exists. It was a clean place, huge and well-lighted, full of commuters with energy and purpose. The only creepy thing I ever saw there: huge cockroaches swarming on a half-eaten peach someone had left by the escalator handrail. A reminder that dark and ugly things live right behind the seams and panels of the clean and lighted world.

After the disaster, I spent days scanning the newspapers for information about the fate of the concourse and the PATH station. I finally learned that the concourse was full of the pervasive white dust but mostly intact: I saw pictures of stores that I knew, like the Sbarro's where I frequently had penne a la vodka for dinner, looking like newly excavated sites at Pompeii. Several trains had gotten out of the PATH station after both planes hit, but another train, abandoned, had been crushed in the tunnel.

It seemed that no-one had died in the concourse: there were no bodies found there.

Somewhere in my mind, the concourse still exists, and is still thronged with people. Borders' bookstore is still open and I can still have the penne a few doors down. It is incomprehensible to me that the concourse, which I passed through twice a day for four months, is a ruin. Nor can my mind take in the fact that I visited the upper floors of a skyscraper which has since fallen down. I can say the words and understand what they mean and know that technically they are true, but there is a split place in my mind. I want to believe that there is another universe, in which the towers never fell, despite the fact that I have been down to Ground Zero, seen the rubble and breathed the acrid smoke.

After 9/11, I also learned how little I knew about the World Trade Center as a whole. I thought, for example, that the concourse was the basement of Two World Trade Center; the almost daily maps of the site in the Times first educated me that the concourse lay under the entire site. I would not have been able to draw for you the relative location of the north and south towers; I couldn't have said which one was further east than the other.

I love bookstores and had spent many hours browsing in Borders' outlets in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Columbus, Ohio and Bohemia, New York, but had never been in the one in the trade center until my commute to New Jersey began leading me past its doorway every day. Yet in the years since it opened, I had frequently seen the bookstore's huge sign down Fulton Street; I worked a five minute walk from the store for many years without going there. Why?

I realized that the reason I had never gone to Borders, the reason that I couldn't even have sketched for you the two towers or the buildings around them, had never been through the site to the Winter Garden or spent any time watching the street performers in Austin Tobin Plaza, was because the trade center scared me. It was too huge. I am mildly agoraphobic and I don't like huge places. The buildings always seemed inhuman to me and in the end of course they were.

Catalytic Bigness

When I was nine years old my parents took me to Stonehenge. I was fascinated by the standing stones, by the engineering problem they represented, but most of all, by the unanswered question of what the structure was for. No-one would go to such effort to move such huge stones without a purpose, but the stones alone could not clearly answer the question, while the people who could were long dead and had left no written record. Stonehenge became one of those recurring symbols, things which lurk in the mud of the memory lake but are reanimated at times and then float to its surface for no overt reason. I am sure that no more than a month or two has gone by since 1963, in which I haven't thought about Stonehenge.

More recently I read of a man who spent years building towers ninety feet tall in his yard in California, then moved away when he had finished them. Today they are regarded as a remarkable example of folk art, but no-one can say exactly what they were for, and the man himself was not reliable on this subject. Perhaps he did not know, or did not wish to say. In any event, a thorough answer to the question, why anyone builds anything, may never be available; there may instead be answers within answers, like a Russian doll containing a series of dwindling replicas of itself.

The question, why build the World Trade Center? What was it for?--may be almost as difficult to answer as the same question regarding Stonehenge. One thing you learn as you live is that human events--a building is an event--happen for a plethora of reasons, or for none. Why did World War I start? For a hundred causes, for no reason.

I highly recommend a book by Eric Darton, Divided We Stand (Basic Books 1999), which examines various answers to the question of why the twin towers were built. Darton helps us look at the World Trade Center through a series of lenses.

The idea of the towers was born in the late 1950's and was championed by David Rockefeller, who boasted that his plan was an exercise in "catalytic bigness". By 1960, David was circulating a brochure, drawn up by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, portraying a 60 story tower, with a "World Trade Club" at the top and a "World Trade Mart" below of shops and exhibit space.

Lower Manhattan--the Wall Street area--was a curious mix of office towers like 40 Wall Street and of low-rise commercial buildings and residences set on narrow, twisting streets. Although many of the small commercial enterprises were thriving--Radio Row, which inhabited what later became the WTC site, was the prime source of electronic equipment in the city--the money men at the Rockefellers' level of reality regarded these older, low-rise areas as a public nuisance, an obstacle in the way of an opportunity to build tall new office buildings in Manhattan.

The proposed make-over of lower Manhattan immediately became a quasi-public enterprise for several reasons. First, the economics and the risk of the project were staggering for private businesses. Even in the 1950's, David Rockefeller was proposing a budget of at least one billion dollars. The risks were high because at a certain point, the economies of scale of skyscrapers reverse themselves. The taller the building, the more floor space is lost to columns and support structures and to elevator banks, so the less the rentable space. As such, the project was always expected to be of marginal profitability. In fact, the World Trade Center did not turn a profit until twenty years after it was built.

Second, private commercial interests would not be able to assemble the "super-block" required, because the owners of some of the low-rise structures would not sell. The government's taking powers would be required to put together enough parcels of property for the project to go forward. In the end, Manhattan's Radio Row was utterly destroyed, and a majority of the businesses there simply shut their doors, insteading of attempting to relocate elsewhere in Manhattan, where they would have to pay much higher rents. Businesses that closed received no compensation, as financial aid was only available to those who relocated.

Nelson Rockefeller, David's brother the governor of New York State, placed the project under the aegis of the Port Authority, and it immediately acquired a second cover story: not only would the building somehow consolidate New York's place as the premier city of international commerce, but at the same time it would somehow serve the related goal of revitalizing the city's fading status as a maritime port.

This claim was probably made to justify assigning the project to the Port Authority. But it was likely a deliberate lie, because the Rockefellers and the "planning elite" of New York City did not actually much care about the city's role in shipping. In their world-view, the city's piers, like Radio Row, represented a wasted opportunity. New, more lucrative uses of piers being implemented or debated today --for residential housing, entertainment complexes, business incubators--have their roots in David Rockefeller's 1950's planning document.

In fairness, the city's maritime unions were participating in their own destruction. They negotiated deals which made the use of New York prohibitively expensive compared to Southern ports: minimum numbers of people who had to be hired for mandatory periods of time to move the simplest load. To take one crate off a ship, you had to pay four or five people for an hour, even if the job took five minutes and could be done by one worker.

New York's freight rail link to the outside world was also decaying. The Port Authority had first been chartered in the 1920's with the mission of building an improved freight link under the Hudson--a project it never carried out.

Rather than destroying the piers, New York's financiers could simply stand aside and let them fall, which they did. In the 1970's, when I walked on the Promenade, you would sometimes still see container ships being unloaded on the docks below. Today there are none.

The World Trade project stalled when New Jersey's governor--the Port Authority serves both states--asked "What's in it for me?" It took another five or six years but the project was reborn in a compromise which shifted it westward, facing New Jersey, and placed it over the bankrupt New Jersey commuter line, which the Port Authority took over (and renamed the PATH, Port Authority Trans-Hudson line) as part of the deal.

The landfill from the World Trade Center construction destroyed the Hudson River piers in lower Manhattan. Battery Park City was built on this landfill a few years later.

Because the world tilts in favor of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, creative processes are much slower and harder to implement than destructive ones. On September 11, the towers came down in about one hour, but it took decades to plan and then build them. One unintended consequence of the time it took was that, when they opened their doors in 1973, the two towers represented the accomplishment of a 1950's idea, which already had diminished relevance in the changed world of the 1970's.

When the time came to begin the architectural and engineering work, the form of the twin towers was dictated by the final, revised ideas of their function. Despite high minded pronouncements about maritime and international commerce, the actual goal was very simpler: to create an additional ten million square feet of grade A office space in lower Manhattan. But by the time the towers threw their doors open, lower Manhattan did not need, in fact could not fill, ten million more feet of space. Nelson Rockfeller responded by renting most of Tower Two at inflated rates for state offices--that is why the New York State Tax Authority was located there when I visited in 1980.

To the end, the World Trade Center was a mix of A and B tenants; multiple floors taken by companies who became sadly famous on 9/11, like Cantor Fitzgerald, and other floors (43,000 square feet each) sitting ragged and empty, or filled with numerous tiny businesses identical to those you would expect to find in a second class office building on 42nd Street. It took until about 1990 to become profitable, based on the aggressive courting of banks and brokerages who took multiple floors; some of the government offices ultimately moved out, though the Tax Authority was still there at the end. The 1993 attack sent the complex's finances staggering again; in the changed atmosphere of the late 1990's, there was increased sentiment in favor of privatizing the World Trade Center. In July 2001, less than three months before the attacks, the Port Authority granted a private developer a 99 year lease on the property, ending its history as a publicly managed landmark, and officially setting it free from its failed mission as a beacon of international trade.

In the last analysis, the World Trade Center, like its destruction, was the product of a human ego. David Rockefeller wanted a huge symbolic edifice, Osama bin Laden wanted to destroy one.

Opposing its surroundings

Othar Ammann, designer of the beautiful Verazzano Bridge, described it as "an enormous object drawn as faintly as possible".

The World Trade Center was the opposite. It was an enormous object drawn as solidly as possible. It's mass suggested that of something as heavy as a neutron star. It pulled in the light around it into its smooth dark surface and gave nothing back. Its status as an architectural object thus reflected its status as a socio-political entity. It was born in the destruction of a thriving New York City neighborhood. As a Port Authority project, it was not subject to New York City real estate tax and instead made much lower "Payments in Lieu of Taxes". Finally, it was not even subject to the city's building code. As I write this, there is a growing debate as to whether flaws in construction or fireproofing finished what the planes began. The twisted steel debris, which offers substantial forensic evidence regarding the heat, progress and effects of the fire, is being rushed off for recycling and the engineering team investigating the collapse is said to feel helpless and frustrated.

A concrete example of a design flaw which aided destruction in a part of the site was the external fuel tank at 7 World Trade Center, the building where Mayor Giuliani chose to locate his extraordinary above-ground emergency bunker and which collapsed on the evening of September 11. The New York City code would never have tolerated an external fuel tank located above the level of some tenants of the building, and the explosion of this tank is though to have contributed to the collapse.

The two towers were designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki to solve the problem of how to create ten million feet of office space in one or more high rise buildings without losing an unacceptable amount of footage to internal columns and elevator banks. Yamasaki decided it would be impossible to do this in one tower, and so chose two. He maximized the rentable footage in each by an innovative design not utilizing any internal columns. The building's central core took the "gravity load", while the 208 foot steel facade acted as a "wind brace", resisting all "overturning forces" ( Great Buildings Online: The World Trade Center). Each building was approximately 1350 feet tall and had about 43,000 total square feet per floor--which boiled down to an acre of rentable space on each floor.

In pursuit of his quest for a maximum rentable area, Yamaskai also minimized the elevator system by his innovative use of "express" and "local" elevators.

Designing for safety

Would internal columns have saved the towers from collapse? We have heard a litany of statements that nothing could have protected the buildings from the impact of a fuel-laden 767. At the trial of the terrorists who attacked the WTC in 1993, project engineer Leslie Robertson testified that the towers had been engineered to withstand the crash of a 707. However, a look at the specs of a 707 shows that it is not that much smaller than the 767: six feet shorter, and with a wingspan ten feet less than the basic 767 model. However, if the figures are to be believed, the 707, unloaded, is forty thousand pounds lighter.

It is hard to know how much credence to give Robertson's statement. Right after September 11, the press also reported that nuclear plant containment shells were designed to withstand a direct hit from a jet. It turned out that the only test of this proposition had been to run a small unfueled military jet along a set of rails. In reality, if one of the 767's hijacked on 9-11 had been flown into the Indian Point nuclear plant in Westchester, N.Y., it is quite possible the concrete would have cracked like an eggshell.

The implication was that the World Trade Center only became vulnerable when Boeing released larger planes. It is likely that it was always vulnerable. In any event, an article in Architectural Record, quotes several experts as saying that no known skyscraper design would have stood up better.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the conceptual design of the towers,” said William LeMessurier, the structural engineer for New York’s 59-story Citicorp Center. “No one could anticipate the extraordinary impact, fuel load, and resulting fire.”

The collision severely damaged the steel facade and the building's core, and then the fuel burning at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit melted the remaining steel. Finally, the top floors of the building, no longer connected to the supports, rode down through the rest of the building like a falling elevator, crushing each section beneath.

The 1945 collision of a B25 bomber with the Empire State Building creates an interesting contrast. The B25 was a much smaller plane; it had a wingspan of 67 feet seven inches and was 53 feet long. The smallest 767 is 159 feet long and has a 156 foot wingspan. The B25, which hit the Empire State building at the 79th floor, had taken off from Bedford, Ma. With a range of 3,000 miles, the plane still had significant fuel, and most of the 14 victims of the crash were killed by burning jet fuel.

A major difference between the WTC and the Empire State building is that the latter has internal columns supporting its structure. The B25 hit a column almost dead-on, and the engines came off, passing on either side. Since the plane hit right at the level of the 79th floor, the floor beams took much of the impact, preserving the column, which might have been more badly injured if the plane had hit between floors. According to Mathys Levy and Mario Salvadori, Why Buildings Fall Down, (W.W. Norton & Co., 1992), the column hit by the plane was barely damaged. The authors describe the Empire State building's survival as a triumph of redundancy.

The building, with columns spaced about 19 feet (5.8 m) on center in both directions, was like a centipede that can compensate for the loss of a leg by redistributing its weight to the remaining legs. This is redundancy, an essential and common characteristic of structures that survive accidental damage or partial failure.

They note that every collapse described in their book can be "attributed to lack of redundancy." In principle, then, so can the fall of the twin towers. The minimalist design, with the building's weight supported by the core only, provided no additional "legs" in the event of a disastrous impact. However, one expert quoted in the Architectural Record piece above said that no system of columns would have held the building up once the core was compromised.

The real question is not whether the Word Trade Center could have survived the impact, but whether it makes sense to build structures so large.

Escape and Rescue

During the design process, did anyone ever seriously analyze the question of how you save people from an intense fire high up in a 110-story skyscraper?

According to a NIST study of the 1993 bombings, only about 40% of the inhabitants of Tower One got out in one hour or less, while a number of people took several hours to exit the building. It would certainly take more than a minute to traverse each floor of a 110 story building, especially given a traffic jam caused by the sheer number of people trying to leave. Anyone trying to get down from the top floors could easily take two hours or more to evacuate.

This simple calculation raises the question as to whether it is safe and reasonable to build a structure so tall it takes two hours to leave it.

There was poignant testimony from people who successfully exited from higher floors on September 11 that they saw dozens of firefighters collapsed in the stairwell under the sheer weight of their equipment. Beside the sprinkler system, the only contingency plan for putting out a fire on the upper floors was to have people run up all those flights, carrying heavy equipment, to fight the blaze. "And surely if society makes the commitment, technology for fighting fires in tall buildings can be advanced beyond sending men on foot up thousands of steps carrying 100 pounds or more of equipment." Architecture Week .

In an unusually silly article in the Science section of the New York Times a week or so after the disaster, several futuristic methods for rescuing people from skyscraper fires were illustrated. One solution: personal parachutes. The article noted that parachuting alongside huge natural or manmade structures is highly dangerous even for trained professionals. At best, this idea has a minimalist, morbid attractiveness: the scores of people who jumped to their deaths from the towers would rather have taken their chances with a parachute, if one was available. But reseating this discussion on a basis of common sense: who would want to work in a building where you need to keep a parachute by your desk?

More absurdly, the Times article showed a hovering platform, proposed by an Israeli company, which could fly up and down a burning skyscraper like an external elevator and take off well-behaved people. But neither the designers, nor the journalist writing about them, addressed the question of what happens when giant concrete blocks and twisted steel beams are slamming into the platform, or excessive numbers of panicked people are jumping from windows onto it, causing it to cant and spill them into the street?

The planes

The blind human desire for "catalytic bigness" is illustrated not only by the towers but by the 767's, which (if they were the smallest model, something I haven't been able to verify) were 159 feet long, weighed 179,000 pounds, carried almost 24,000 gallons of fuel, and were capable of transporting 238 people. The same human urge produced a huge tower, a huge plane, and a man with a huge ego who wanted to see what would happen if you nudged one of them into the other.

Smallness and diversity

When I finally get around to compiling the list of the books which have formed me (I have the title: "Books Which Wrote Me"), Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Vintage Books, 1961) will certainly be on it. Jacobs argues that the rules by which we decide what to create and what to destroy in cities are stunningly wrong, that a Radio Row is worth much more in human terms than a World Trade Center.

Jacobs published her work while David Rockefeller was still floating his plan for downtown. And she criticizes that plan for promoting an intense sterility, for creating a district of one overwhelming primary use--office space--without the diversity needed to balance it. In Jacobs worldview, thriving neighborhoods are mixtures of residences and businesses, and the streets are filled with people at all hours, creating a humane environment which also, on a practical level, deters crime. Office towers filled with people on a 9 to 5 basis, and which are surrounded by deserted streets afterwards, make for dead downtowns.

When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighborhood of the whole begins to suffer: People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by happenstance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another.

Almost by definition, a 110 story skyscraper cannot form (or form part of) the kind of community Jacobs describes. There are no common areas for the employees of different companies and other visitors to mingle and get to know one another. It remains what it was conceived to be, a huge container for ten million feet of rentable space, without any consideration of "human factors" such as sunlight, common space, beauty or recreation. The lack of thought about how to rescue the tenants from death was just a last omission in a planning process which never took into account how the tenants would live, either.

Contrast the assemblage of the trade center "superblock" with Jacobs' analysis of the virtue of short city blocks, which promote more commerce and more interaction of neighborhood residents with each other and with merchants. "(F)requent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighborhood." Here again Jacobs points out that Rockefeller-style city planning does the opposite of the human and sensible. "The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success."


Some people forcefully build skyscrapers, others use force to destroy them. In between are ordinary people who, responsive to the builders' and owners' force of will, work in them, despite the fact that the buildings are neither secure nor satisfying. Looked at in this perspective, the sad thirty-year life of the World Trade towers seems a human folly of Biblical proportions.