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A Morning That Shook the World: The Seismology of 9/11

As the World Trade Center was being attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, I was wheeling my year-old daughter from an exam near St. Luke’s Hospital, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When we got home, the phone rang. It was my mother. “Two planes just hit the World Trade Center,” she said. “Turn on your television.” I did, and immediately feared for my wife; she was working several blocks from the site. Just then, the phone system collapsed; I couldn’t reach her. In succeeding hours, I watched the towers come down on live TV and debris choke lower Manhattan. All I could hope was that she was hiding somewhere, able to breathe, or had run away.

My wife was in her glassed-in corner office at a federal court. At around a quarter to nine, the building trembled. Another construction-crane accident, she figured, and kept working. Just after nine, a much larger impact traveled up the bones in her feet. The big reinforced windows bowed in and back out “like they were made of Jello,” she later said. She hid under her desk, but the glass held. She looked into the beautiful blue sky of that day. Flames were raging from a black hole in the north tower; countless papers and shiny metal bits were fluttering down. She looked down; a wave of humans had filled the narrow street below her, fleeing eastward. A federal marshal rushed in. “Walk north,” he said. This she did, seven miles home—part of it barefoot, because she had worn too-tight work shoes. After some 20 blocks, she looked back and saw the black-smoke pillar of fire suddenly change to white and billow out; the south tower had fallen. Later, we both went to St. Luke’s to donate blood for the survivors we assumed would be flooding in. But the hospital was dead quiet; we were told no blood was needed.

Seismologist Won-Young Kim heard the first reports in his car as he drove to Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, on the west bank of the Hudson River 21 miles north of the attacks. From here, Kim runs a far-flung network of seismic instruments that monitors the U.S. Northeast for earthquakes. When he got to work, everyone was glued to the radio. Soon, he was inundated by calls from government officials and reporters. In the initial chaos, it was unclear exactly what had hit, and when; had the seismographs picked up anything?

“Up to then, all I knew was, something terrible happened,” said Kim. His and others’ first impulse had been: Should we go down there and help rescue people? Bring supplies? But aside from the fact that all bridges and tunnels to Manhattan were soon shut down, they realized they could be of more use where they were. “I thought, yes, maybe there is a seismic signal,” said Kim. “Maybe we have data to contribute. Maybe we can assist and help pin things down.”

Kim and his colleagues soon came up with precise seismic signatures of the plane impacts and building collapses that had been observed by so many eyewitnesses. The analyses helped investigators confidently interpret many details of the attacks and their consequences. They led to corrections in the reported timing of events and fed into the final narrative of the U.S. 9-11 Commission. An image of one of their seismograms is enshrined at Ground Zero in the September 11 Museum.

Kim received his first query, from a New York Times reporter, after the collapse of the first tower. There was no operating seismometer in New York City at that time; the closest was the one on the Lamont campus itself. Kim rushed over to the big rotating drum that continuously records its signals on paper. Sure enough, the needle had jumped. Signals also came in electronically from some of the 33 other seismographs scattered across the region. Kim was in his office trying to work out the exact time and magnitude of the collapse when the second tower came down. From then on, all he did was make calculations, confer with colleagues and try to get a few hours of sleep. He does not recall ever seeing visual images of the plane impacts or building collapses until the following night, when he went home and saw on television what most other people had already seen a hundred times.

 

Visitors to the underground September 11 Museum view the massive retaining wall that once surrounded the towers' foundations. Seismic waves from the collapse first passing through this wall were detected more than 250 miles off. (Kevin Krajick)

Visitors to the underground September 11 Museum view part of the massive retaining wall that surrounded the towers’ foundations. Seismic waves from the plane impacts and tower collapses first passed through this wall and into the earth’s crust.

Over succeeding weeks, Kim and his colleagues worked with federal investigators, the New York Fire Department, the Port Authority and others to provide seismic records that could be combined with photos, videos and eyewitness reports. Their first product, coauthored by 12 Lamont seismologists and grad students, was a November 2001 paper published by the American Geophysical Union  describing the waves generated by the attacks, their potential effects, and the precise timing of each event.

The seismologists determined that the planes hit the towers at 8:46:26 and 9:02:54, give or take a few seconds. Their calculated time for the first strike was about 2 minutes earlier than had been reported by media. To make the calculation, they had to account for the 17-some seconds it would have taken for the waves to travel from the shocked towers down through their foundations and then outward through complexes of shallow crustal rocks. First, the hard schist and amphibolite of lower Manhattan; then the gneisses of upper Manhattan; on to the sandstones and shales underlying the Hudson River; and finally up through the great sill of volcanic rock that forms the towering Palisades on the river’s west bank, where Lamont sits. Much of the energy also traveled through the river itself.

The jet strikes generated seismic waves comparable to small earthquakes of magnitudes 0.9 and 0.7 respectively—probably only a small part of the total energy of the collisions. Kim believes most of it was released in fireballs and airborne shock waves. This helped explain my wife’s testimony: Intervening buildings largely blocked the waves (and her view) of the first, which she felt only weakly. For the second, she was in a direct line. The seismic waves looked quite unlike those of natural earthquakes, which originate under the surface, said Kim. These had started from above. “More like ringing a bell,” he said.

Seismograms of the plane impacts and subsequent collapses of the World Trade Center towers, recorded 21 miles away at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The records became part of the official record, helping pinpoint the exact time of each event. (Kim et al., Eos Transactions, 2001)

Seismograms of the plane impacts and subsequent collapses of the World Trade Center towers, as recorded 21 miles away at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The records helped pinpoint the exact time of each event. (Kim et al., Eos Transactions, 2001)

According to the seismic signals, the collapse of the south tower came at 9:59:04 and that of the north tower at 10:28:31. Some federal investigators put the times about 10 seconds earlier, but they apparently measured from when the buildings began pancaking from the top; the seismologists pinpointed when they hit bottom. The first collapse, of the south tower, generated seismic waves comparable to a magnitude 2.1 earthquake. The fall of the north tower, a half-hour later, generated the most powerful wave—corresponding to a magnitude 2.3  earthquake. This was recorded by 13 seismic stations in five states, including one at Lisbon, N.H., 266 miles away. Again, Kim calculated that most of the energy did not reach the ground as seismic waves; it was mainly used up converting steel, concrete—and human beings—to dust. He said the event greatly resembled the energy released by a pyroclastic flow, a lethal explosion of hot gases and debris running down the slopes of an exploding volcano.

Crash of the hijacked United Air 93 near Shanksville, Penn. Signals of this impact were less clear, pointing to the importance of other kinds of data. (Kim, Baum, 2004)

Seismic signals from the crash of the hijacked United Air 93 near Shanksville, Penn. Signals of this impact were less clear than those from the World Trade Center. (Kim, Baum, 2004)

The nearby 7 World Trade Center came down at 5:20:33 pm, and the seismographs picked that up, too. “It was more gradual than the big towers,” said Kim. There was some speculation that this building and others nearby were fatally damaged by the earlier strong ground shaking, but the seismic analyses suggested otherwise. Modern New York structures are built to withstand much stronger natural quakes, up to magnitude 4 or 4.5. The seismologists said the weakening of adjacent structures was more likely caused by the sudden air pressure of the volcano-like debris flow, not ground shaking. These findings helped engineers more confidently judge which other still-standing buildings were weakened, and which were not.

In the days following the attacks, Kim and many others discovered something else: Among the more than 8 million New Yorkers, there are few degrees of separation. Nearly everyone knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone who was missing. My wife and I went to a wonderful party at the Brooklyn home of our close friends Bob and Sally to ring in the millennial New Year, Jan. 1, 2000. At the party, we met two of their other friends: Brooklyn firefighter Dave Fontana and his wife, Marian. We liked them a lot, and talked about all kinds of things, from sculpture to baby names. Shortly after the attacks, Bob called to tell me Dave Fontana was missing. He never came back, and we attended his funeral together.

“Everyone on my little street, they had a cousin, or a friend,” said Kim. “It was very painful.” Among them: several former Lamont geophysics students who worked in or near the Trade Center. Highly skilled at analyzing complex data, they had figured out they could make a lot more money crunching stock prices for Wall Street than plotting earthquakes. One of Kim’s former students, a Chinese immigrant named Jing-Hua Shi, could not be reached for three days. Finally, she turned up OK. Another, 41-year-old Weibin Wang, had immigrated from China and studied earthquake mechanics at Lamont. In 1999, he joined the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald, and in March 2001 became an American citizen. He lived in a suburban house not far from Kim with his wife, Wen Shi, and their three children. On weekends, he cooked for them and took the kids to piano lessons. He was on the 103rd floor of the north tower when the plane struck, and was never heard from again.

Some time later, Kim and Gerald Baum of the Maryland Geological Survey tried to help pinpoint the time when the hijacked United Airlines flight 93 slammed into a field near Shanksville, Penn., killing everyone on board. They came up with 10:06 am, but the signals were mixed with too much noise, and they turned out to be unreliable; using radio transmissions and other data, the 9-11 Commission put the crash three minutes earlier. And Kim could not come up with any signal at all from the crash of a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon at 9:37 am. He speculates that the marshy sediments on which much of Washington is built had absorbed the impact. Or, additionally, that the Pentagon is built over a massive labyrinth of reinforced underground spaces that scattered the energy.

 

Seismologist Won-Young Kim pulls out the original paper seismogram showing the jet impacts, and subsequent collapses, of the World Trade Center towers. "It was a very painful day," he said. (Kevin Krajick)

August 22, 2016: Seismologist Won-Young Kim pulls out the original paper seismogram showing the jet impacts and subsequent collapses of the World Trade Center towers. “It was a very painful day,” he said.

Later, when Kim looked back over the New York City data, something popped out that dumbfounded him. Interspersed around the plane impacts and the fall of the towers were five or six smaller seismic signals. At first he thought they were incremental collapses. But he tracked their locations to a line of sites along a formation of hard rock in northern New Jersey. He had seen these before many times: dynamite blasts at rock quarries. “I was very surprised, they were still doing it that day,” he said. “I thought they would have stopped, but they continued.”

The events highlighted the fact that New York City did not have a single operating seismic station. This, although Manhattan is underlain by several known faults, has a history of small to moderate earthquakes, and could be subject to much larger ones. In 2002, Kim and his colleagues installed stations in Central Park and at Fordham University in the Bronx. These continue to operate today.

At the time of the attacks, Kim and his family were all still citizens of South Korea, where Kim grew up. Sept. 11 changed this. “It was very hard for me to see my neighbors,” he said. “I realized, I don’t feel pain when I read in the news about something bad happening in Korea. It’s too far away. This was very close to me. I knew, this is where I live now.” A few months later, he and his family all applied for U.S. citizenship. They were sworn in together as citizens in July 2002.

 

The September 11 Memorial. Just as this photo was taken, a leaf drifted from the sky to the inscription for Brooklyn fire fighter David J. Fontana. Fontana and 14 other from his squad perished when the south tower collapsed after they had climbed up some 45 stories. It was his and his wife Marian's eighth wedding anniversary; he had insisted on the date because he wanted it to be nine-one-one, the number people call when they are in trouble. (Kevin Krajick)

The September 11 memorial. In the instant this photo was taken, a leaf fell by the name of Brooklyn fire fighter David Fontana. He and 11 others in his squad perished after racing up 45 stories inside the south tower, trying to save people. It was his and his wife’s eighth wedding anniversary. He had insisted on the date because he wanted it to be nine-one-one, the number people call when they are in trouble.

kevin arctic

Kevin Krajick is the editor for science news at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has written for National Geographic, Science, Smithsonian, Newsweek and many other magazines. He is author of the book Barren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North American Arctic.

This post was originally published on the Earth Institute blog State of the Planet, and reproduced here with permission.

Comments

  1. Eric Estrada
    Bakersfield
    October 27, 3:17 pm

    nice article