Grounding our fears, uniting our spirit

August 11, 2010

My older brother Tom is a commercial airline pilot and flight instructor based in Charlotte. Last month, I was happy to have the opportunity to visit him and his family during the AIA show.

On May 10, the night after our successful Building Team Awards reception at the Charlotte City Club, my brother had a surprise for me. A slot had opened up in his training schedule and a flight simulator was available for a guided tour. So, that Friday night at 10 p.m., my brother, his 19-year-old son Adam and I took to the virtual skies.

While it was a rare experience I do not regret, it was anything but a joyride. My brother programmed us into the computer for a landing at LaGuardia Airport in New York. Before I knew it, the large screen before us, wrapping around the front of the faux cockpit, was filled with the image of Manhattan's familiar, now haunting, skyline.

And there it was again, in all its simulated glory: the World Trade Center. We flew towards it, closer and closer, drawn by the ghostly snapshot of history this cutting-edge technology had now become. Finally, we veered off, just clear of the still-standing towers. But my mind has remained in that approach pattern ever since.

Learning from tragedy, conquering paralysis

Indeed, most of us have seen the Twin Towers fall dozens, if not hundreds, of times since last September, thanks to television. Those of us who have not have actively had to avoid the ghastly image. It is truly everywhere.

Few people have seen that film more than structural engineer Gene Corley, who has led the American Society of Civil Engineers team investigating the collapse for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (see interview, p. 13). The group has reviewed the videos, visited Ground Zero repeatedly and spent countless hours at New York area landfills, where debris from the towers was brought.

After picking through and examining twisted and charred steel beams and columns, Corley's team reached the preliminary conclusion that the towers reacted extraordinarily well to the unprecedented trauma inflicted by essentially two fuel-laden missiles. Although it strongly recommends further study, especially into the application and performance of fire-proofing materials in high-rises, especially on beam-to-column connections, the team came away from the exercise largely impressed by the World Trade Center's final performance.

In fact, team member Jon Magnusson of Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire saw me in Charlotte and stressed that he remains worried that unnecessary building code changes will be seen as a panacea that misses the most pressing concern: securing aircraft from kamikaze pilots.

Indeed, just as technology was able to recreate the Twin Towers for me in the simulator, the know-how apparently exists — or is nearing reality — to override pilots in the air and retake control of their aircraft from the ground.

So, just as the world seems to have grown closer and riskier since last year — indeed, the decades-long blood feud between India and Pakistan is now on all our radar screens — the lines between our professions are blurring, too. True defensive building design can only go so far without the integrated support of industry and government.

In New York, that coordination has now entered the rebuilding phase, with Twin Towers owner Larry Silverstein this month moving to break ground on a new 7 World Trade Center. The city, meanwhile, has hired a team of master planners to start reconfiguring the Ground Zero site. With billions pouring in and ideas mounting for memorials, new offices, greenspace and grand transportation hubs, I have no doubt that lower Manhattan will soon be a showpiece again.

I just hope that the lessons we have learned at such a high price over the last nine months prove not to be fleeting. They boil down to one particularly appropriate phrase. It is an old one and it is certainly overused, but it has never been truer: United we stand, divided we fall.


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