Five Days in March 2002

Five Days in March 2002

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Monday, March 4th, 2002

Next week, twin beams of light will project up from the WTC site. “Family members” expressed concern that the light would memorialize the buildings and not the loved ones they lost. The project which was called “Towers of Light,” was renamed to “Tribute in Light.” It cost $500K; there was no mention of where the money came from. Con Edison donated the power.

Reports today revealed that the Federal government had information about a nuclear attack targeting NYC last October. The information wasn’t shared with the FBI or city officials. The threat turned out not to be credible, but the debate about sharing crucial information continues. Releasing that information might have led to evacuating the city. Where would everyone go? When would it be clear to come back? At the same time, withholding information, if there had been an attack, would perhaps have created a bigger problem.


Monday, March 11th, 2002

It has been six months, both a short and very long time since September 11th.

The air is clear, the temperature below zero. The strange weather has not let up.

A ceremony was held in Battery Park this morning. At exactly 8:40 AM, Mayor Bloomberg began by saying, “We are gathered here to dedicate a memorial.” It was not initially clear to me what actual memorial he meant as I was listening on the radio.  Later, he said it was a “temporary memorial.”

The memorial is in Battery Park, well south of the former towers. It features a sculpture called the “Sphere,” by Fritz Koenig. Koenig built the piece over 4 years in West Germany. He titled it “Große Kugelkaryatide N.Y,” or  “Great Caryatid Sphere N.Y.”

In 1971, before the completion of Tower 2, the sculpture was placed in the main plaza between the two towers. At the dedication, the commissioned sculpture was said to “symbolize world peace through trade and commerce.” A fountain, designed by Minouru Yamasaki (the architect of the towers), encircled the Sphere. Yamasaki said the design was inspired by the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

Just before this semi-anniversary the Sphere was moved, in its damaged state, from a temporary salvage yard at JFK Airport and rededicated with an “eternal” flame. Koenig supervised the move and attended the rededication, noting that the sculpture had taken on a new meaning—one he never intended or imagined, but that provided hope.

Bloomberg went on to say, “The Sphere symbolizes, now as it did, world peace through world trade.” He asked everyone to “reflect for a moment before the official moment of silence.” I think this was to fill some slop time built into the schedule in order to align with the exact time the first plane hit. Then he said, “Please join me in a moment of silence. Exactly 6 months ago, the tragedy started.” The radio broadcast allowed dead air, something the FCC doesn’t like. I could hear street noise mixed with static. It was not peaceful. The grey soulless sound didn’t have the power of a live moment of silence. Ending the quiet, the mayor said: “Thank you.  Please remain standing.”

An invocation was delivered by Father John Romas of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church which was destroyed six months ago when the south tower collapsed. A message from President Bush and his wife Laura was read. Then, the mayor spoke the name Fritz Koenig aloud. Visual artists who are not famous are rarely mentioned.

Time passes. The one year anniversary will certainly be a big deal. In five years, 9/11 will be noted, and it will likely be commemorated for the rest of my life. But in a hundred years?

What days are most commonly recalled over a lifetime? In the last 40 years, there have been the Kennedy and King assassinations, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the resignation of an American president. Further back in time, Pearl Harbor and dropping nuclear bombs come immediately to mind. Somehow, it seems that we remember what happened in our parents’ lifetimes, but not our grandparents’. I wonder if that is or was true with older, less “developed” cultures where storytelling was central.

After the invocation, New York’s governor George Pataki made some brief remarks about a future memorial. He also spoke about the bronze sculpture, saying, “The Sphere symbolizes world peace, which was damaged but not destroyed.”

Then, the 107th Mayor of New York, Rudy Guilliani, began by thanking everyone there—or at least as many people as he could name. He alluded to the moment we knew we had been attacked, meaning, the moment the second plane hit. He went on in Guilliani poetics, then the radio feed was lost. It came back just as he concluded.

After him, two sons who lost their dad, spoke. The 12 and 16 year-old young men each read a part of a poem and said a few words. Their presentation was grounding, if not easy to hear its sadness and loss. The emotion that comes when words are real, from the core, can rarely be duplicated by a politician or public figure. Then there were more words and another moment of silence or radio hum. This quiet was broken by the mayor who said, “God Bless America.”

Then the sound of a bell—Zen-like at first, but it kept going, not reverberating, but with the sound of additional strikes. It was more like a pleasant clang than the distinct resonance of a well-crafted Asian bell. It sounded five times, then another five times, and then another five times. I learned it was a fire department bell and that 5-5-5 is the signal of a fallen firefighter.

I did not hear any planes overhead. I wonder if they were rerouted for the event.

*  *  *

Last night, I did not see the CBS (?) documentary which apparently included footage from inside the towers during their last hours or minutes. However, in the morning, on National Public Radio, I heard a documentary about people working in the recovery area. I know the workers were asked not to talk about their own experiences at first. But, this piece started with a guy talking about seeing heads, fingers, and other body parts. The reporter stated that she observed workers “delicately picking their way through the debris.” She explained that when they found a body, it was laid on a cart, wrapped in a flag, and then last rights were administered.

A rescue worker said, “When you are here you don’t want to be here. When you are not here, you feel guilty for not being here.” She said they average about four hours of sleep each night. Then, she said something like, “I would venture to say that everyone working here has nightmares. But they won’t talk about them. Nobody does.”

A Gallup poll said that only 3% of the people surveyed said they had “returned to normal.”  That’s about the lowest number I have ever heard in any poll on any topic. 

Peppered throughout the day were hints of what might be to come. Apparently, scores of blank foreign passports were found among other terrorist stuff in Afghanistan. The blank passports were all from countries that do not require a visa to enter the US.


Wednesday, March 13th, 2002

Light rain. Cold.   

By chance, I heard a presidential press conference. Later, I discovered it really was by chance, as it was George W. Bush‘s first one in five months. His last press conference was shortly after 9/11, likely by political necessity rather than choice. 

The president seems to have significant difficulty with English, his native tongue. Have we had a president with such limited achievement and intellect? At the press conference, he was asked about Iraq, a country whose leader is slowly re-emerging as an important villain—at least to news-consuming Americans. Clearly, it is helpful to have an enemy figurehead in your sights, especially as we can’t figure out what happened to Mr. bin Laden.  

The president said Iraq “is a country run by a man who has killed his own people.” 

As governor of Texas, didn’t Mr. Bush set a record for killing his own people—surpassing all other states? Bush went on to say Iraq killed their people with chemical weapons. Isn’t lethal injection a chemical killer?

He labeled bin Laden “the ultimate parasite.” I wondered what he meant by parasite—that we fed him? Or that he lived off American money for years, while he was on “our” side? Maybe he was just grasping for a negative-sounding word.   

“History has called us to action,” Bush said, presumably to justify our pending actions. This could be an interesting concept—that the past is calling to the United States to act in a certain way. Maybe I haven’t given his intellectual capacity enough credit. 

In terms of our war on terrorism, he said, “all options are on the table.” He clarified that “all options” include the use of nuclear weapons. It’s scary to think about this elite man who never showed any interest in international travel having such power over a country so far away.


Monday, March 18th, 2002

I overheard my friend Tom, a NYC fireman, talking about 9/11. He was telling someone about people who were nearby as the buildings came down. He said they described hearing a “snap” or a “click.” I interpreted that to be the sound of each floor snapping free of its vertical supports. The mass above the flaming hole was considerable, and once the collapse started, the momentum of the mass continued to increase as each floor crashed, one on top of the next. They delayered. 

How the towers collapsed in a nearly perfect vertical column remains a mystery to me.

Later, he talked about firefighters who saw the huge hole in the side of the building and realized there was nothing they could do.


Friday, March 29th, 2002

West Street is finally open south of Canal Street. The northbound tube of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel reopened today. It closed on September  11th and is the last river crossing to reopen. 

Uncharacteristically, I spent the late morning in the intellectually steeped lobby of the Algonquin Hotel reading The New York Times and drinking tea. The paper had a draft copy of a report on the collapse of the World Trade Towers. The report, due out at the end of April or early May, was put together by FEMA and the American Society of Engineers.

Some information from it:


– Both planes were Boeing 767’s, and both had about 10,000 gallons of fuel when they hit the buildings. Approximately 1/3 of the fuel burned away in the initial impact fireball; the remaining fuel burned in minutes, in a fire so intense it was said to give off three to five times as much energy as a nuclear power plant—about one gigawatt. This fire set office furniture and equipment on fire as well as the planes’ cargo. The blaze engulfed several floors. The fire suppression system failed, probably because the pipes were cut when the planes ripped into the building. People going down some of the stairwells reported water flowing down the walls.

– The initial impact of the planes caused a relatively small amount of structural damage. The integrated design of the buildings, with facade, core, and floor slabs working together, allowed the towers to remain standing. They were designed with significant “stiffness” to resist the high wind loads at such great heights.

– American Airlines flight 11 hit Tower 1, the north tower, at 8:46:26 AM. The plane disappeared into the building between the 94th and 98th floors. The building collapsed 102 minutes and 5 seconds later at 10:28:31 AM.   

– United Airlines flight 175 flew into Tower 2, the south tower, at 9:02:54 AM. The plane was flying 586 mph, more than 100 mph faster than the American Airlines flight. It hit between the 78th and 84th floors, creating a fireball on three sides of the building. The building collapsed 56 minutes and 10 seconds later at 9:59:04 AM. 

– The upper part of the south tower lilted to the east, then south, initiating the collapse. Because the United Airlines plane hit at a lower level, there were more floors and therefore more weight above the damaged area. This made that damage even more destabilizing to the overall structure.  

– It is unclear exactly what caused the collapse of the north tower, the building with the giant communications tower on top. Some researchers believe that they could see the tower begin to move fractions of a second before the building collapsed, indicating a central failure of the structural system.  

– The planes acted like snow plows, pushing everything in the buildings to one corner where the fire raged. Acres of office equipment were ablaze. Oxygen was sucked in through the huge open hole in the side of each building. The fire was so hot that molten metal could be seen pouring out of the south tower “like a waterfall” shortly before it collapsed. The metal was probably aluminum from the plane’s fuselage.

– The impact of the planes could have jarred the sprayed-on fireproofing loose from the structural steel. An expert said the light and fluffy mineral wool-like material can be easily wiped away with a swipe of your finger.  

Limited information is available about how the buildings actually collapsed. The report seems to fault New York City for recycling the steel so quickly that it could not be fully investigated. Some steel is still being examined, though it sounds like the beams they have to investigate came from WTC #5. These beams were twisted and showed failures at their connections, but WTC #5 was not hit by a plane, and there was no mention of whether or not the fireproofing had been upgraded in that building.  

Since the 1993 truck bombing in the parking area below the north tower, 18 floors of that building and 13 floors of the south building received upgraded fireproofing. The plane hit the north tower in an area that had been upgraded, while in the south tower, the plane hit an area that had not been upgraded, except for floor 78.   

Most people above the impact zone when the planes hit were killed. I assume the same was true for the people on the floors of impact, though that detail was not mentioned. The report cites a death toll of 2,830 people, including over 400 firefighters, police, rescue officials, and others who stayed to help.


by James Boorstein
© 2023
Courtesy of Box 3 Productions


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