The debate over what kind of Sept. 11 commemoration is appropriate has swung into full force. For me, what could be better than a kind of commemoration that will prevent another tragedy?
Last year’s investigations into the World Trade Center disaster determined that it was not a fait accompli that the towers, once struck, would collapse. Neither the impact of the huge airliners nor the fireball of jet fuel was enough to bring the towers down. The crucial factor seems to have been the extremely hot fires that the jet fuel ignited in the flammable content of the towers, which softened the structural steel and triggered the collapse. The specific design flaws crucial in the collapse have not been determined, and how the lapse in structural integrity could have been prevented is still unclear.
Therefore, a new investigation will soon be launched into the World Trade Center collapse. Scheduled to last two years and cost $23 million, it will be headed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency with expertise in building performance and structural failures. It is a welcome change of pace to see scientists, rather than the peanut gallery of cable news, weighing in on Sept. 11. We may finally get some useful information
The new investigation will examine how well (or poorly) fireproofing materials worked, why people were trapped on the upper floors and how well firefighters were able to respond given the buildings’ design. Given that there are more than 50 buildings in Manhattan over 25 stories high, and given that the debate over the future of the Ground Zero site includes a proposal to erect another skyscraper, we should take heed. We should be especially mindful that despite the World Trade Center’s state-of-the-art design, the initial investigation found that an extremely fierce fire alone could be sufficient to bring down a 47-story building, even without an external impact.
The long-overdue $23 million investigation may uncover grave building errors, information which will help us develop new strategies to protect our most exposed structures. This could end up saving hundreds or even thousands of lives in the event of further acts of terrorism, far more than an ill-advised expansion of the war on terror to include “pre-emptive measures.”
Medical traumas are cured by careful diagnosis and treatment. So should public traumas like our vulnerability to terror. Patriotic voodoo and remilitarization will not spare us another tragedy, only spin us back into a fruitless and self-centered solidarity that barely masks our ignorance about what could have been done and what can still be done. In what seems like the most ecumenical commemoration ever, we have heard from everyone but the scientists. Let us now sober ourselves in solemn commemoration by listening, learning, and preventing.
Aaron Goode is a junior in Calhoun College.