Why the Towers Fell

Dennis Smith stands in front of a memorial at St. Paul's Chapel, which is around the corner from Ground Zero.

By Tom Deignan, Columnist
October / November 2002

Dennis Smith, former firefighter and author, talks to Tom Deignan.

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If retired firefighter and best-selling author Dennis Smith had his way, the Twin Towers that once dominated the New York City skyline would be built again.

Not in downtown Manhattan, however.

Smith believes the towers should have been rebuilt as part of the ongoing investigation into the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In Smith’s mind, almost a year later, we still know perilously little about what went wrong that day, and why the towers ultimately collapsed so quickly.

“When a plane crashes…the FAA spends millions of dollars to rebuild the plane in a hangar somewhere to find out what went wrong,” says Smith, who wrote the recent best-seller Report from Ground Zero, as well as the firefighting classic Report from Engine Co. 82, about his years working for the FDNY in the South Bronx, during an arson epidemic.

“Are you telling me there isn’t a field in America large enough to reconstruct the towers?” he asks rhetorically, before wondering aloud why the towers’ steel was, instead, shipped off for recycling quite quickly after the terrorist attacks.

Disturbing questions such as these linger in Smith’s mind. They encompass not merely the horror and heroism of September 11, but also the building of the World Trade Center back in the late 1960s.

What role did organized crime play in the WTC construction? Did heralded WTC designer Minoru Yamasaki build the Twin Towers with an “inherent flaw”? And what about the supposed cold war between cops and firemen which might have fatally affected communication that fateful day?

Smith discussed all of these questions recently, in the Upper East Side Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, Katina.

Failing to address these questions, Smith says, could leave America vulnerable to another catastrophe.

“There are still so many things to think about,” adds Smith ruefully.

The roots of the September 11 disaster, which left over 2,800 people dead in New York, lie in the original design of the Twin Towers, Smith believes.

“This building was built with an inherent flaw, much the way the Titanic was built with an inherent flaw. No one expected the Titanic to hit the same iceberg three times. But it did.”

Smith, also the founder of Firehouse magazine and a top fundraiser for firefighter causes, continues: “The inherent flaw is that nobody ever considered a comprehensive fire load in the (towers). Up until these buildings fell, not a single high-rise building had ever fallen in America.”

Smith acknowledges that while constructing the Twin Towers, engineers did anticipate a large plane crashing into the buildings. But adds: “They took into account (the plane’s) impact – fire was not taken into account,” says Smith, who was raised in East Side Manhattan tenements by his Irish immigrant mother, years recalled in his memoir A Song for Mary.

For decades, Smith notes, FDNY brass voiced major concerns about the World Trade Center.

In fact, FDNY chief John T. O’Hagan adamantly opposed the WTC construction plans when he ran the department in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But, as Smith writes in Report from Ground Zero, FDNY “objections had no effect, for the project was being constructed by the Port Authority on New York & New Jersey, which by law could circumvent the established fire codes of New York.”

Smith and others argue that the lightweight design of the Trade Center – seen as so revolutionary when it opened – most likely contributed to their swift collapse.

Smith believes fire chiefs, on that fateful day, calculated that they had roughly three hours to rescue as many people as they could. This is the standard estimate for a high -rise collapse by fire. However, this was based on how older buildings burn. The south tower would collapse in 56 minutes, while the north stood for about 100.

“This would never have happened if (the terrorists) hit the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building,” declares Smith. Older buildings, aside from being made largely of fire-resistant concrete, also simply have greater “mass,” Smith says, which hinders fire and collapse.

Back in the late 1960s, the WTC’s lightweight design was seen as such a positive thing because, among other things, it maximized the amount of space in the buildings. Older buildings, with all their “mass” taking up space, tend to have fewer square feet of “rentable space.” More space, of course, translates into more rent dollars.

Smith, however, does not want to imply that simple corporate greed led to all those deaths on September 11. He understands the importance of money, rent and jobs to downtown Manhattan, and never had a problem with some kind of large office building for the Lower West Side.

But the fireman in him cannot help but oppose the vision of WTC designer Minoru Yamasaki, not merely from an aesthetic standpoint, but from a safety standpoint. More broadly, the concerns of FDNY brass were never taken seriously during the construction of the towers, or for that matter, of so many recent high-rise building projects.

Also disturbing to Smith is the failure of the WTC fireproofing. As he explains in Report from Ground Zero: “During construction of the Trade Center, the Port Authority had used asbestos to fireproof the steel up to 1969, when they banned it as they reached the thirty-ninth floor of the north tower. Above that level the construction engineers began employing a substitute fireproofing made of mineral wool (melted and spun rock) and binders. This could have contributed to the fall of the buildings within such a short burning time. One pound of jet fuel has about ten times the potential destructive energy of an equivalent amount of TNT, and so the crash of the planes into the buildings may have dislodged all the fireproofing over the exposed steel beams… This is an issue, I suspect, I will hear more about.”

Now, Smith is not so sure the fireproofing required the force of a hijacked jet to be dislodged. Something much less powerful might very well have shaken off the material.

“Normally, in the experience of fire chiefs in a high-rise fire, the fire will melt the steel in one part of the building, the steel will soften and it will collapse. Every fire chief expects this (partial collapse).”

But that’s only if the fireproofing works as it’s supposed to.

Smith, then, recalls that during the WTC’s construction, a mob-tainted firm received the fireproofing contract for the towers project.

Smith says that little is known about how shoddy materials provided by a mobbed-up company might have affected the safety of the towers.

“What if the steel was rusted? What if the fireproofing was applied over rust?” asks Smith. Those questions, of course, could be answered if the WTC steel was still available, as evidence. But it is not, much to Smith’s dismay.

In an eerie twist, the corrupt owner of the WTC fireproofing firm, Louis DiBono, was eventually among those whacked by notorious mobster Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. DiBono was left for dead in, of all places, the basement of a World Trade Center garage.

Another area of concern for Smith is the issue of communications between rescue workers, such as police officers and firefighters, at disaster sites.

There have been suggestions, since the 9/11 attacks, that the famous turf wars between the FDNY and NYPD contributed to a communications breakdown. After all, both departments set up separate command centers on September 11. And many police officers were able to communicate that day – with several told to get out of the buildings which appeared on the verge of collapse. FDNY communication, on the other hand, severely malfunctioned.

But Smith doesn’t buy into the turf war theory.

“(Police officers and firefighters) generally come from the same places, the same families…they go to the same churches,” says Smith.

The real problem, in Smith’s mind, is the lack of an integrated, centralized communication system. Especially in the wake of the first WTC attack in 1993, Smith believes a better communication system should have been implemented. One attempt at a kind of “war room” for city disasters was Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s much-derided “bunker.” While it appears Giulaini might have, in fact, been correct to argue the city needed such a facility, on September 11 it proved useless. It was located on the 26th floor of 7 World Trade Center, which also collapsed.

“What is a bunker doing on the 26th floor?” Smith asked, incredulous.

All in all, Smith remains uneasy when asked if New York – or any U.S. city – is adequately prepared for another crisis.

But what about all of the debates and studies undertaken since 9/117 Smith simply quotes the FDNY’s Ray Downey, who, in the wake of the ’93 WTC attack, told Congress: “Do we know a lot more now? Absolutely. But are we any safer? No.” (Downey died on duty September 11). ♦

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