Last week, the House Science Committee, apparently driven to mouth-frothing jealousy by the spectacle of their Senate colleagues preening on network news about Enron, decided that they had had enough, and that they wanted to get on television, too. Summoning various eager experts and a handful of hapless officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institute for Science and Technology, Committee members strutted and bloviated and demanded to know why the World Trade Center towers had fallen down.
The legislators ran through the classic repertoire of congressional threat display, including:
Browbeating: Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, asked the witnesses at one point who was in charge of the investigation. Three men tentatively raised their hands, like little boys about to wet their pants — exactly the point of Weiner’s question. “We’re operating as if we’re in charge,” said Arden Bement, director of the NIST.
Tut-tutting: “It does strike me that six months after the fact there shouldn’t even be any doubt [about who is in charge],” said Connecticut Republican Chris Shays.
Making emotionally-charged, unanswerable demands: “Do you believe that if we had this information before September 11, some of those people sitting behind you would not have lost loved ones?” That was the indefatigable Rep. Weiner again, referring to families of some attack victims, who attended the hearing.
Inflammatory speechmaking: New York Democrat Joseph Crowley bemoaned the recycling of World Trade Center steel, supposedly without its being examined. “Conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day with this,” he said. “It is not only unfortunate, it borders on criminal.”
They marveled over mysterious difficulties, such at FEMA’s seeming inability to examine World Trade Center blueprints, owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
And, of course, the Committee slavered over the testimony of selected experts who said preposterous things. FEMA’s Robert Shea and University of California engineer Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, for example, insisted that the hijackers had deliberately crashed their jets into the twin towers’ most vulnerable spots.
The entire circus of self-righteousness ignored one thing. The Learning Channel (TLC) broadcast “World Trade Center: Anatomy of the Collapse” at 10 p.m. EST on February 6. Allowing for the production lead-time, everything the Science Committee demanded to know was known, in the private sector, at least a month and a half ago.
Expert testimony and investigation for the program were provided by MIT and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The program’s producers apparently had no trouble examining the damaged steel from the WTC; they simply got off their butts and did it, unlike FEMA. They had no difficulty obtaining the WTC blueprints, owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — apparently because they were willing to promise not to testify against the Port Authority. Indeed, they showed those blueprints, full-page, on TV.
Most important, “Anatomy of a Collapse” explained clearly why the towers fell down.
The World Trade Center was built not around an interior “cage” of steel beams, like traditional skyscrapers — for such big buildings, those beams would have taken up all the rentable interior space. Instead, they were designed to be supported by rigid skins, assembled like Lego from giant grids of steel. The rigid exterior boxes would, in turn, be supported by each floor, acting like a brace. And the floors themselves rested on trusses, socketed at each end into shackles attached to the exterior walls.
The designers calculated the dangers of such things as wind and even the impact of an airliner of the day, a 707. But, as a fireman quoted in a broadcast said, “You can’t trust a truss.”
Burning jet fuel melted some of those truss-anchoring shackles enough to allow them to fail and drop at least one truss. Once a single floor fell, the entire structure lost its integrity and began to twist, and further floors fell, in a chain reaction. That’s not guesswork. The program’s investigators actually found deformed shackles and trusses, numbered to indicate which floors they came from.
As for that supposedly diabolical calculation to hit the towers at just the right spot, Osama bin Laden himself admitted he didn’t think the buildings would fall down (in that nauseating self-congratulatory party video broadcast on Al-Jazeera). The hijackers couldn’t hit the towers any lower; other buildings were in the way. They couldn’t take a chance on hitting them any higher; struggling to control the planes, they might have missed.
I suppose it’s too much to ask the members of the House Science Committee, the NIST, and FEMA just to shut up and order the video, here.