The role of terrorists in the history of disasters is different from all others in that it is a sustained activity over time, a deliberate destruction of people or buildings in order to raise awareness of a political problem and use the publicity generated to gain some political result. The destruction of the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center (WTC) in 2001 and parallel atrocities represent the worst disasters of this kind ever experienced in the United States. They illustrate the worst features of terrorists’ methods and define in quite a new way the nature of those disasters we label as terrorism. The beginning of the attack on the Twin Towers was a pair of flights from Boston. Of course, this was not really the beginning. Such attacks actually begin in the ghastly, inhuman mindsets of the people who conduct acts of terrorism. They plan for years ahead of action, sometimes for decades and, as part of their preparations for this particular series of acts, they exploit the good natures of the U.S. citizens who assisted them as they took flight training in the United States. On September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston for Los Angeles with ninety-two passengers and crew aboard. Sometime shortly afterward, the plane was taken over by five passengers who were hijackers. Just before 9 A.M. the plane crashed into the upper floors of the North WTC Tower. Fifteen minutes later a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, also bound from Boston to Los Angeles, hit the upper part of the South Tower. It too had been taken over by hijackers.
The planes were flown into the buildings at full speed in what can only be compared to the kamikaze tactics used by Japan in World War II when young pilots crashed their bomb-laden planes into American ships. Flames engulfed the upper floors of both towers within moments and every branch of New York’s fire and rescue organizations sprang into action. It was a chaotic situation and they knew they faced a daunting task. The places where rescuers were needed most were above floor eighty and they knew that both electricity and elevators would soon be cut off there. Fortunately, there were only 14,000 people in both towers at the time of the explosions, far fewer than in an earlier 1993 attack. Later in the day there would have been three times that number. Those inside first experienced a gigantic blast and felt the towers swaying backwards and forwards. Sprinklers came on as electricity and lights went off. For a time, the elevators below the eightieth floor continued to operate and many were able to get into them. Fires started in different places, many of them triggered by aviation fuel, then sustained by the flammable materials in the offices. Thousands of pieces of glass, papers, debris, soot and ash, even clothing and body parts from the passengers who were in the planes, rained down on the streets below. Temperatures reached thousands of degrees in parts of the towers.
For about an hour the main supports of the towers held firm, allowing many to escape. Fires, sustained by chairs, desks, and other flammables, raced up from the level at which the planes struck to the twenty or more floors above, steadily weakening the main steel supports. At these heights steel is thinner as the total weight to be supported is much less than at lower down. Finally there came a general collapse as the upper floors buckled and sides caved in. Like battering rams in ancient warfare, successive masses of thousands of tons of steel stomped on the floors below until they could no longer absorb the pressure. Both towers gave way in a cloud of dust. The noise of hundreds of thousands of tons of steel crashing down could be heard all over southern New York City as people ran from the scene as fast as they could. All public transportation had stopped. Among the most horrific of all the things that had to be endured was the sight of people jumping to their deaths from the top floors rather than be incinerated. The scale of destruction and the reckless indifference to civilian life rightly identified the event as war, a new kind of war, and subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere were in keeping with that analysis.
First response by the U.S. government was to stop all flights at U.S. airports in case further attacks might be in process. Incoming planes from other countries were routed to neighboring countries. Canada, because of its proximity to the United States received most of these flights and for a time its airports were filled to overflowing. The pilots were not informed of the changes and were only told where to go. It was felt that unnecessary panic would be avoided by maintaining silence until the planes were on the ground. The towers had been designed to withstand an impact from a modern jet plane but not an impact that involved maximum speed and maximum amount of fuel. The flights that were hijacked were meant to fly to Los Angeles so they were fully loaded with fuel. Modern steel skyscrapers had never previously collapsed because none had ever been subjected to the levels of stress imposed on the WTC. It was feared at first that as many as 6,000 might have died within the towers. Later it became clear that the count was close to 3,000. Among them were 350 firemen who had climbed up into the towers to help. More than a million tons of debris had to be removed at a rate of 10,000 tons a day, so it took several months just to clear the site. Some of the individual pieces of steel weighed twenty-five tons. Excavators with a reach of 100 feet and cranes that could pick up as much as 1,000 tons were needed for the work.
All of this debris had to be hauled by barge or truck to a landfill location on Staten Island. Nothing at this scale had ever previously been tackled and costs for the whole project soared beyond a billion dollars. The dangers from toxic materials at the time of the attack were largely ignored because more urgent matters commanded attention. All who were near the towers as they came down were covered with dust that came from fibrous glass, computer screens, asbestos, and a host of products that had been made from different chemicals. Spills of mercury, dioxin, and lead were all around. Some initial testing was done after a week and it showed levels of toxic chemicals as being below danger standards. Few of the local residents were satisfied with these results. They continued to wear masks and protective clothing. Before the full impact of the destruction of the Twin Towers was known across the country a third plane had hit the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth that many believe was headed for the White House, crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers, at the cost of their lives, fought the hijackers but were unable to take control of the plane. The type of terrorism represented by the destruction of the Twin Towers is the one we have seen again and again over the past forty years. The future may introduce the more terrifying types represented by biological elements and nuclear material.