|an attempt to uncover the truth about September 11th 2001|
It wasn't until Dr. Thomas Eagar saw Building 7 of the World Trade Center implode late on the afternoon of September 11th that he understood what had transpired structurally earlier that day as the Twin Towers disintegrated. A professor of materials engineering and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, couldn't find a structural engineer? Eagar went on to write an influential paper in the journal of the Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society entitled "Why Did the World Trade Center Collapse? Science, Engineering, and Speculation" (JOM, December 2001). In this interview, Eagar explains the structural failure, with complete confidence and no evidence whatsoever, what can be done within existing skyscrapers to improve safety, and what he believes the most likely terrorist targets of the future may be.
NOVA: After the planes struck and you saw those raging fires, did you think the towers would collapse?
Eagar: No. In fact, I was surprised. So were most structural engineers. The only people I know who weren't surprised were a few people who've designed high-rise buildings; people who will remain unnamed so this assertion can't be verified .
NOVA: But you weren't surprised that they withstood the initial impacts, is that correct?
Eagar: That's right. All buildings and most bridges have what we call redundant design. If one component breaks, the whole thing will not come crashing down. I once worked on a high-rise in New York, for example, that had a nine-foot-high beam that had a crack all the way through one of the main beams in the basement. This was along the approach to the George Washington Bridge. They shored it up and kept traffic from using that area.
Some people were concerned the building would fall down. The structural engineers knew it wouldn't, because the whole thing had an egg-crate-like construction. Or you can think of it as a net. If you lose one string on a net, yes, the net is weakened but the rest of the net still works.
NOVA: The World Trade Center was also designed to take a major wind load hitting from the side.
Eagar: Yes. A skyscraper is a long, thin, vertical structure, but if you turned it sideways, it would be like a diving board, and you could bend it on the end. The wind load is trying to bend it like a diving board. It sways back and forth. If you've been on the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago or the Empire State Building on a windy day, you can actually feel it. When I was a student, I visited the observation deck of the Sears Tower, and I went into the restroom there, and I could see the water sloshing in the toilet bowl, because the wind load was causing the whole building to wave in the breeze.
NOVA: Are skyscrapers designed that way, to be a little flexible?
Eagar: Absolutely. Now, there are different ways to design things. For example, Boeing designs their aircraft wings to flap in the breeze, while McDonnell Douglas used to design a very rigid wing that would not flex as much. You can design it both ways. There are trade-offs, and there are advantages to both ways.
NOVA: Brian Clark, one of only four people to get out from above where United 175 hit the South Tower (The New York Times (3/2/6) has identified 18 people) , says that when the plane struck, the building swayed for a full seven to 10 seconds in one direction before settling back, and he thought it was going over.
Eagar: That estimate of seven to ten seconds is probably correct, because often big buildings are designed to be stiff enough that the period to go one way and back the other way is 15 or 20 seconds, or even 30 seconds. That keeps people from getting sick.
Eagar: It's really not possible in this case. In our normal experience, we deal with small things, say, a glass of water, that might tip over, and we don't realize how far something has to tip proportional to its base. The base of the World Trade Center was 208 feet on a side, and that means it would have had to have tipped at least 100 feet to one side in order to move its center of gravity from the center of the building out beyond its base. That would have been a tremendous amount of bending. Actually the top would only have had to tip 50 feet before its center of gravity cleared the building's core -- the gravity load-bearing component. The top of the South Tower had already tipped that much and, given the law of preservation of angular momentum, would have continued to tip more had it not disintegrated in mid-air. In a building that is mostly air, as the World Trade Center was, there would have been buckling columns, and it would have come straight down before it ever tipped over. The WTC's "air to steel" ratio was no higher than for any other modern skyscraper. Eagar's "mostly air" comment is nonsense; it's just more rhetoric intended to make the "collapses" seem to make sense, without using any real logic. All matter is "mostly empty space," but there are "solid" reasons why we can count on most objects to remain intact most of the time.
Have you ever seen the demolition of buildings? They blow them up, and they implode. Well, I once asked demolition experts, "How do you get it to implode and not fall outward?" They said, "Oh, it's really how you time and place the explosives." I always accepted that answer, until the World Trade Center, when I thought about it myself. And that's not the correct answer. The correct answer is, there's no other way for them to go but down. This is a great discovery, Eagar. Demolition companies no longer will need to carefully place and time explosives to get a building to fall into its footprint. They will just need to start a fire. 47-story WTC 7, underwent a complete and systematic collapse even though it sustained no impacts with aircraft or large debris. It just had a few small fires that were barely visible. They're too big. With anything that massive -- each of the World Trade Center towers weighed half a million tons -- there's nothing that can exert a big enough force to push it sideways. This whole argument of the physics working differently because of the scale is nonsense. The strength of the structural elements is scaled up in proportion to the weight. Eagar wants it both ways -- the tower was at once very massive, and mostly air. In fact the towers had a high strength-to-weight ratio (in contrast to masonry buildings). Given the dense grid of long vertical columns in the tower's core, the collapse proposed would have caused the tower's top to topple from the crash zone, like a falling tree. But even if the core were completely severed at the crash zone, the intact portion of the core below would deflect the falling portion of the building away from the center.
Eagar: Well, like most buildings, the World Trade Center was mostly air. It looked like a huge building if you walked inside, but it was just like this room we're in. The walls are a very small fraction of the total room. The World Trade Center collapse proved that with a 110-story building, if 95 percent of it's air, as was the case here, you're only going to have about five stories of rubble at the bottom after it falls.
NOVA: You've said that the fire is the most misunderstood part of the World Trade Center collapse. Why?
Eagar: The problem is that most people, even some engineers, talk about temperature and heat as if they're identical. In fact, scientifically, they're only related to each other. Temperature tells me the intensity of the heat -- is it 100 degrees, 200 degrees, 300 degrees? The heat tells me how big the thing is that gets hot. I mean, I could boil a cup of water to make a cup of tea, or I could boil ten gallons of water to cook a bunch of lobsters. So it takes a lot more energy to cook the lobsters -- heat is related to energy. That's the difference: We call the intensity of heat the temperature, and the amount of heat the energy.
Continue: The heat was much greater than might have been expected in a typical fire?
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