by Philip E. Daoust
American Reporter Correspondent
San Francisco, Calif.
September 11, 2002
SILVER SPEARS AFIRE: THE TWIN TOWERS REMEMBERED
SAN FRANCISCO -- When I was about 10 years old my family went on a three-day trip to New York City, about three hours south from my home in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.
While I don't recall much from that experience, I do distinctly remember seeing the World Trade Center towers for the first time. I had to arch my head back just to see where the two giants of concrete and steel topped off.
I remember thinking how awesome the towers were in the way they soared so powerfully into the sky, so high above New York's crowded skyline, easily surpassing the heights of all of the skyscrapers from mid-town to Lower Manhattan.
The race to build the tallest, most impressive skyscraper on Earth was over when the towers were completed in 1970 and 1973. And as if to taunt other ambitious skyscraper builders around the world, New York crossed the finish line with not just the tallest building in the world, but with the two tallest buildings in the world, reaching a remarkable 110 floors into the sky. A year later, however, the Sears Tower in Chicago surpassed them both at 1,450 feet.
In the eyes of a 10-year-old, the first impression of the Twin Towers was enough to fascinate for a lifetime. Over the ensuing years, I visited New York more than a dozen times, a few times making a special trip to the twin monoliths of American prosperity.
From the top of the South Tower observation deck, one could see, on a clear day, as far as 45 miles in each direction. Way out, far beyond the crowded streets of New York, were the sun-dappled peaks of the Catskill Mountains, the gray marshlands of the New Jersey shore and the milky blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Meanwhile, nearer to the towers, up 110 stories above New York, the view switched to something more powerful and fascinating. From so high, the city looked like an architect's replica of Manhattan, not the big, bad, in-your-face metropolis visitors knew in the streets so far below.
I remember staring down the side of the tower all the way to the streets below. It was a thrill to watch dozens of tiny, yellow cabs and other vehicles crawl through the vertical corridors of Manhattan's skyscrapers. In fact, it was so high up that one couldn't make out any of the tens of thousands of people ambling about the streets. Sometimes peering down as far as the eye could see created an unmistakable feeling of vertigo, and a sense of unease and vulnerability.
On one trip to the South Tower's observation deck in 1982 with my ninth-grade class, I recall the towers' tops enshrouded by clouds and fog. At the towers' base, looking straight up the shiny face of the buildings, long wisps of clouds whipped around the sides of the steel peaks.
From the grand plaza that led to the entrance of the towers, it was clear the winds were much stronger 110 stories up. A security guard said that it was possible to hear the howling winds and feel the tower sway from the observation deck. That didn't sit well with my classmates and me. We grew up in a small Massachusetts town where the tallest building was six stories high.
The sky was getting darker and the winds were blowing harder as a weather system stalled over the island of Manhattan, ominously threatening a mid-May rainstorm. A couple of students did not want to go to the top and stayed in the lobby with a parental guide. So there we were, shuffling into the elevator for a harrowing ascent to the top of the South Tower, more than 1,300 feet above the ground. As the floor numbers ticked away, I was beginning to feel jittery and light-headed.
Indeed the winds were howling around the observation deck; and, whether it was my imagination or for real, I felt the tower move. In a book a friend had brought, it stated that the towers were constructed around a massive steel core. Somehow this assured me that we would be okay. I pointed this out to the others and it seemed to calm their nerves as well.
The architects of the trade center towers spent many months designing the structures so that they would withstand the load of high winds.
The man who was chosen to design the trade center back in 1962 was a most unlikely choice. Minoru Yamasaki, a small and frail 49-year-old Seattle-born architect, had been singled out from a list of prominent architects. Many were surprised by the choice, including Yamasaki, who only designed one other skyscraper - the 28-story Michigan Consolidated Gas skyscraper in Detroit.
Over the ensuing years, Yamasaki studied more than one hundred model schemes. Ultimately he decided on a two-tower structure, which would yield "a reasonable office area on each floor and allowed a manageable structural system."
Even before the first blueprints for the World Trade Center were drawn up, however, outrage sprouted out at all levels of New York society - from the merchants along the historic Radio Row to city politicians, including a future mayor, Ed Koch.
Among the naysayers to the trade center's massive construction were prominent New Yorkers with sway and position in the circles of the powerful and rich, including one of Manhattan's biggest real estate tycoons, Lawrence A. Wien, an owner of the Empire State Building.
Despite the opposition, the trade center project moved forward. Initially, the towers were planned to reach only 80-90 stories high. But it was decided later "to construct them as the world's tallest buildings, following a suggestion said to have originated with the Port Authority's public relations staff," according to one account.
By the time the ground was broken for construction in 1966, the final plans had been mapped out. The towers, once completed, would consist of two 110 story towers and three smaller buildings on a 16-acre site. On April 4, 1973, seven years after the first shovel hit the ground, the World Trade Center was officially open for business.
Newspapers around the world showed pictures of the silvery behemoths towering over New York's impressive skyline, sparking a new era of skyscraper architecture that set out to tests the limits of vertical building worldwide. Some would say that no other buildings "scraped the sky" the way the Twin Towers did. Others hailed the accomplishment as the grandest feat of vertical architectural design in the history of modern man.
Part of my personal relationship with the Twin Towers includes my professional work as a Web editor for LookSmart, one of the leading content providers on the Internet. Beginning on Sept. 11, 2001, just a few hours after I watched the attacks live on television and saw the towers collapse, I began what would turn out to be four months of reviewing and archiving 9/11-related content.
The project was perhaps the most ambitious of any other similar effort on the Internet. By the end of 2001, more than 2,000 relevant Web files and pages had been reviewed and archived into more than a dozen subcategories. They included news resources, multimedia, commentary, timelines, tributes and eyewitness accounts.
When I visited New York last December, I was still somewhat in denial that the towers were gone. But moments after grabbing my luggage from the baggage claim at JFK, I was in an airport shuttle with four other people racing towards the city. A dark blue dusk was settling over Manhattan. With my face pressed against the glass, I scanned the skyline of lower Manhattan, trying to make sense of it. But with no towers in sight, it was almost unrecognizable.
"This could be Chicago, Pittsburgh or Houston for all I know," I said to the woman sitting next to me. "Without the towers, it just doesn't seem like New York."
That's when the full reality of the loss crystallized for the first time. All told, I must have uttered "I can't believe they're not really there" a dozen times. Even today, it is somehow difficult to fully grasp the enormity of that hellish day - the senseless loss of life, the destruction of a half-dozen major buildings and the psychological trauma that millions of people will carry for years to come.
When I arrived at the hotel in midtown, I realized why I was staying in a luxurious hotel for one-third the usual rate. The terrorist attacks had devastated New York's crucial tourism business, leaving it in shambles. Hotels, airlines and other travel-related businesses were desperate for travelers. But the widespread fears generated by 9/11 and the sagging economy left New York a near ghost town compared to the busy streets and shops of just a few months before.
The following morning, as I set out on a pilgrimage from East 34th St. all the way down to Lower Manhattan, the first thing I noticed was that my sense of direction was skewed. Why? Because, as many people who have spent any length of time in New York come to learn, the towers served as a point of reference for direction around the city. When the towers were still there, it was easier to get around - want to go downtown, head towards the towers. Uptown? Walk away from the towers. But now I had to ask someone which way downtown was.
Scores of visitors to New York, and even New Yorkers themselves, often looked to the towers for direction, others for inspiration. Some may have thought of the towers as twin guardians of the metropolis far below, commanding an invisible influence over the everyday affairs of the city. But to the average witness of history's tallest buildings, the World Trade Center towers were, at the very least, as much a symbol of New York's greatness as the Empire State Building was to the generations that came before.
A few months ago, I was watching the movie "Day Trippers." It's about an out-of-town family that spends a day driving around New York looking for an in-law caught cheating on his wife. At one pivotal scene near the end of the movie, the camera slowly zooms in to focus on the Twin Towers, brilliantly lighted in the dark night sky. Suddenly, there is no sound for almost half a minute as the camera remains fixed on the magnificent beauty of the towers.
At that moment, and quite unexpectedly, I began to whimper. It was all too real now; they were gone forever. And their demise, along with the murder of thousands of innocent people from nearly every nation on earth, served as a message of hate against a tide of humanity.
Yamasaki once said that the towers should stand as "a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness."
I've stood on the shoulders of one of the world's tallest buildings, visited Ground Zero, covered the attacks and the aftermath, suffered recurring nightmares of planes crashing into buildings, and talked at length with others about the towers and their place in history.
A year after the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, it is clearer than ever that the Twin Towers will never be rebuilt to their former glory, nor should they. More importantly, the 16 acres of earth where those towers once stood must become a fitting memory to the men and women who lost their lives when two silver spears set them afire that bright September day.
Sources & Links:
New York Times Magazine: "The Height of Ambition"
Project Liberty Services - Mental health services for people affected by
LookSmart's Sept. 11 Archives
Image: A view of the South Tower looking up from its base on the plaza.