Anyone who was sentient at the time recalls where they were on September 11th 2001. I was taking a class of sixteen-year-olds through the text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and we were discussing – in relation to the three Witches – whether there could be an independent force of evil, or whether it existed only in the hearts and minds of human beings. We only realised later that during that time the planes were slamming into the World Trade Center.
The so-called “twin towers”, which were not actually identical, were developed in the late 1960s to revitalise the southern tip of Manhattan. Their genesis was controversial, because they belonged to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which was independent of city and state planning jurisdiction.
Designed by Minoru Yamasaki & Associates in conjunction with Emery Roth & Sons, they were not universally liked. These elegant modernist towers, clad in aluminium alloy, were dismissed by one writer, Lewis Mumford, as “filing cabinets”.
Inevitably, they grew to be an immediately recognised part of the cityscape. Ed Vulliamy, in an Observer article [August 21st 2011] describes how they told the passing of each day: “…deep gold at the eastern edge in the early morning, becoming paler towards midday and deepening again to a tangerine glow at dusk”.
They also contributed to New York legend. Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker, walked from one tower to the other in 1974 and was, for his pains, arrested for trespassing. Three years later George Willig climbed the outside of the south tower using suction-pads.
And they were celebrated by tourists. Express lifts carried the public in slightly under a minute past ten million square feet of office space to the indoor observation deck on the 107th floor, from which escalators gave access to a surprisingly unvertiginous roof-deck. Bizarre effects were experienced at this height, including upwardly mobile rain.
The towers attracted the attention of terrorists because of their particular design and their proximity. A bomb which exploded in the basement on February 23rd 1993, destroying five floors, killing six people and wounding at least a thousand, was apparently intended to tip one tower over to demolish the other.
The final atrocity, which killed over 2,752 people in the buildings, on the planes and in the frantic rescue operation, was no random attempt to create a terrorist “spectacular”.
The people who perpetrated this massacre knew perfectly well that flying a plane into, say, the Hancock or the Sears Towers in Chicago would do great damage but might not engineer a collapse.
The World Trade Center towers were constructed with external load-bearing walls to provide open-plan office space. Though they had been designed to withstand an accidental collision, the airliners’ wingspan of 156ft ripped through buildings only 209ft wide.
The height of the impacts was far beyond the range of ground or airborne firefighters, and the amount of kerosene on board aircraft at the start of transcontinental flights created enough heat to weaken the steel structure, causing the floors to implode with terrifying speed.
Among the 9/11 terrorists were individuals with civil engineering expertise, trained to build things. This wasn’t only a violent and a perverse act. It was calculated evil.