A Reflection on the 9/11 Tragedy: The Acorn and the Weirs


world trade center memorialAct III: A bill was passed into law, named for one of the cleanup responders – Zadroga – insuring health benefits for their, many of them, shortened lifetimes. 

The fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack featured the annual reading of the names of the some 2,700 people who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. The Freedom Tower, their commercial replacement, a concrete bunker by design, is completed with an antenna on top. More striking is the completed memorial, which now covers most of the former sixteen acre superblock. A documentary on PBS covered the planning , engineering and construction of this stunning park. Literally, an army of experts and normal “joes” accomplished the cleanup of debris on the “mound” after the collapse. 

Regarding the park, which could be called “Resurrection Park,” a similar army of experts and ordinary “joes” brought life back to a place of death. In this program, a highlight was the planning and execution of the two reflecting pools covering the footprints of the towers, square in design, 208 feet by 208 feet. After many ideas and concepts were tried and failed, a group of engineers came up with something that can be found in the Liffey River, northwest of Dublin, before the stream flows through the city to the sea. Often described as a young girl, this part of the river dances over rocks, down hills, through trees, flowers and holly bushes. Along the way, the water flows over small dams called weirs. Engineers replicated the weirs in the way the water would flow over the walls of the reflecting ponds. It actually would not flow over the walls at all. Behind the slanted name-holding rock rectangles is a trough of water, which runs over weirs made of metal. Brilliant in it simplicity, it answered the many problems involved with flowing water over the walls themselves.

A more recent program called “Treasures of New York” highlighted the magnificent trees in the memorial park. A teacher-like, middle-aged woman leads tours of the park. As they walk around, she asks them to pick up an acorn which has fallen from the trees, take it home and bury it in the ground. This woman then relates her personal story. On the morning of September 11th she heard her husband’s voice on her answering machine. He was a fireman attached to Squad 41 which was stationed near Yankee Stadium. The squad had been called to the Trade Center. Early in the morning of the next day, the phone rang. No one from Squad 41 could be accounted for. She and her small daughter had lost their husband and father. This widow now showed her tour group a picture of her husband wearing his helmet with 41 on the front, as well as a second picture of him, belted to a tree, trimming limbs from it. He had worked a second job as an arborist.

The second part of the program highlighted a skinny young man with glasses in jeans and a polo shirt, feeling the bark of one of those trees and then later showing his wife and kids the trees in the park. He had worked for Bartlett Tree Surgeons overseeing the delivery and planting of trees in this beautiful park. Another ordinary “joe.”

Act II: On the morning of September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda hijackers flew two Boeing 767 jets into the complex, beginning with the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. and then the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. After burning for 56 minutes, the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. and 29 minutes later, at 10:28 a.m. (102 minutes after being struck by the plane), the North Tower collapsed. The attacks on the World Trade Center killed 2,606 people.

The planes, supposed to fly from Boston’s Logan Airport to California were loaded with 10,000 of fuel. The impact, with the fire that followed, caused the upper floors to collapse and, like a stack of pancakes, collapse floor to floor to bottom, grinding everything in between into dust-like powder.

Act I: The Twin Towers – did you ever wonder why there were two? When asked why two 110 story buildings instead of one 220 story building, the architect Minoru Yamasaki, with tongue in cheek, replied, “I didn’t want to lose the human scale.” Wags, at the time would have chuckled, “Symbols for David and Nelson Rockefeller.”

“Human Scale:” The site for the WTC complex was a thirteen square block area comprising what was called “Radio Row,” home to hundreds of commercial and industrial tenants, property owners, small electronics businesses and some hundred residences. These would be demolished for the sixteen acre superblock. 

Louis Mumford, in his book “The Pentagon of Power,” denounced the center as an “Example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism, that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.” His description of the towers later on: “just glass and metal filing cases.” Jane Jacobs weighed in with “the waterfront should be kept open for all New Yorkers to enjoy!” The Twin Towers were described as looking similar to “the boxes the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building came in.”

“Personal Symbols:” In the 1960s and 1970s David Rockefeller was the Chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. He had erected a “superblock” in the financial district called 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza. Packages, meant for delivery to this site, were returned for a lack of address. In 1961 he introduced the idea of a large complex to the Port Authority as part of an “urban renewal” project on the lower west side of Manhattan. During this same period, his brother, Nelson Rockefeller, was governor of the state of New York. Financial power and political power resided in the two brothers. The WTC would be created and owned by the Port Authority of NY and NJ. The governor of New Jersey demurred at first, but an agreement to take over the Hudson transit system, which would now be called the PATH (Port Authority Hudson Tubes) and place the WTC over the Hudson terminal for the PATH train, brought him aboard.

Yamasaki’s plan called for a square, 208 feet on each side. The buildings were designed with narrow office windows, 18 inches wide, which reflceted Yamasaki’s fear of heights. He originally called for the towers to be 80 stories tall, but to meet the Port Authority’s requirement for 10 million square feet of office space, the buildings would each have to be 110 stories tall. To create the most open floor space the plan called for an inner core for stairways, elevators, and restrooms. Steel pillars would enclose the core. The exterior walls would enclose pre-fab columns and trusses. The trusses would be connected to the floors, which would be load-bearing. The “tube-frame” engineering designed brought about column-free space between the perimeter and the core. 

 The “tube frame” system created a relatively lightweight structure that would sway more in response to the wind compared to traditional structures such as the Empire State Building, that had thick, heavy masonry for the fireproofing of steel structural elements. The exterior walls would be sheathed in light aluminum ally.

There would be 95 express and local elevators in the WTC. The system would be based on the NYC subway system, with two “sky lobbies” on the 44th and 78th floors, where people could switch from a large capacity express elevator to a local elevator that went to each floor in the system.

The soil dug up for the foundation of the Trade Center was dumped next door into the Hudson River, for the construction of Battery Park City – 1.2 million yards of landfill. 

At the base of these buildings would be a huge concrete “pedestrian” plaza, much like a concrete desert. At one point because of the wind sheer, “the “Venturi Effect” that at the base ropes were installed for the pedestrians. The streetscape was non-existent.

Over the years, more fully tenanted, the Towers would be humanized. Fifty thousand people would be working here. The concourse below, with the PATH station, a shopping mall and restaurants, would have some 200,000 people go through it on a daily basis. In 1981 a 22 story hotel, the Vista, was built south of the towers. This hotel was a great convenience for those, coming from all over the world, to do business in the Towers. 

In 1975, there was a fire on the 8th floor. It was discovered that there were no fire sprinklers. In 1993, a bomb exploded in the basement. Smoke filtered up to the 93rd floor. It would take over two hours for people to come down the stairs to exit the building. On this occasion, it was discovered that there were no exit lights in the stairways. It was said that the buildings could withstand a 727 jet crash into it. But later it seemed that the amount of fuel in the plane at the time was not considered.

Fade Out: Water flowing over those weirs, and wind whistling through those oak trees, dropping acorns: the two symbols of life.

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