Why was there Molten Metal Under Ground Zero for Months after 9/11?
New York firefighters recalled in a documentary film, "heat so intense they encountered rivers of molten steel."
A NY firefighter described molten steel flowing at ground zero, and said it was like a "foundry" or like "lava".
A public health advisor who arrived at Ground Zero on September 12, said that "feeling the heat" and "seeing the molten steel" there reminded him of a volcano.
To some, it was an environmental health disaster from the very first. “Standing down there, with your eyes closed,” says Ron Burger, a public health advisor at the National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who arrived in New York to help September 11th but didn’t arrive to the Ground Zero the site until the night of September 12th, “it could have been a tornado or an avalanche or a volcano.”
A veteran of disasters from the Mississippi floods Mt. St. Helens, Burger said it reminded him most of the volcano, if he forgot he was in downtown Manhattan. “Feeling the heat, seeing the molten steel, the layers upon layers of ash, like lava, it reminded me of Mt. St. Helen’s and the thousands who fled that disaster,” he said.
“It could have been a tornado or an avalanche or a volcano.”
An employee of New Jersey's Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue witnessed "Fires burn[ing and molten steel flow[ing] in the pile of ruins still settling beneath her feet." (1)
The head of a team of scientists studying the potential health effects of 9/11, reported, "Fires are still actively burning and the smoke is very intense. In some pockets now being uncovered, they are finding molten steel."
According to a worker involved with the organizing of demolition, excavation and debris removal operations at ground zero, "Underground it was still so hot that molten metal dripped down the sides of the wall from Building 6."
An expert stated about World Trade Center building 7, "A combination of an uncontrolled fire and the structural damage might have been able to bring the building down, some engineers said. But that would not explain steel members in the debris pile that appear to have been PARTLY EVAPORATED in extraordinarily high temperatures" (pay-per-view). Note that evaporation means conversion from a liquid to a gas; so the steel beams in building 7 were subjected to temperatures high enough to melt and evaporate them.
A rescue worker "crawled through an opening and down crumpled stairwells to the subway five levels below ground. He remembers seeing in the darkness a distant, pinkish glow–molten metal dripping from a beam"
A reporter with rare access to the debris at ground zero "descended deep below street level to areas where underground fires still burned and steel flowed in molten streams." (3)
A structural engineer who worked for the Trade Center's original designer saw "streams of molten metal that leaked from the hot cores and flowed down broken walls inside the foundation hole." (pages 31-32)
An engineer stated in the September 3, 2002 issue of The Structural Engineer, "They showed us many fascinating slides ranging from molten metal, which was still red hot weeks after the event."
An Occupational Safety and Health Administration Officer at the Trade Center reported a fire truck 10 feet below the ground that was still burning two weeks after the Tower collapsed, "its metal so hot that it looked like a vat of molten steel."
A witness said “In the first few weeks, sometimes when a worker would pull a steel beam from the wreckage, the end of the beam would be dripping molten steel”
The structural engineer responsible for the design of the WTC, described fires still burning and molten steel still running 21 days after the attacks (page 3).
According to a member of New York Air National Guard's 109th Air Wing, who was at Ground Zero from September 22 to October 6, "One fireman told us that there was still molten steel at the heart of the towers' remains. Firemen sprayed water to cool the debris down but the heat remained intense enough at the surface to melt their boots."
A retired professor of physics and atmospheric science said "in mid-October when they would pull out a steel beam, the lower part would be glowing dull red, which indicates a temperature on the order of 500 to 600 °C. And we know that people were turning over pieces of concrete in December that would flash into fire--which requires about 300 °C. So the surface of the pile cooled rather rapidly, but the bulk of the pile stayed hot all the way to December."
A fireman stated that there were "oven" like conditions at the trade centers six weeks after 9/11.
Firemen and hazardous materials experts also stated that, six weeks after 9/11, "There are pieces of steel being pulled out [from as far as six stories underground] that are still cherry red" and "the blaze is so 'far beyond a normal fire' that it is nearly impossible to draw conclusions about it based on other fires." (pay-per-view)
A NY Department of Sanitation spokeswoman said "for about two and a half months after the attacks, in addition to its regular duties, NYDS played a major role in debris removal - everything from molten steel beams to human remains...."
New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said "They were standing on top of a cauldron. They were standing on top of fires 2,000 degrees that raged for a hundred days."
As late as five months after the attacks, in February 2002, firefighter Joe O'Toole saw a steel beam being lifted from deep underground at Ground Zero, which, he says, "was dripping from the molten steel."
Indeed, the trade center fire was "the longest-burning structural fire in history", even though it rained heavily on September 14, 2001 and again on September 21, 2001, and the fires were sprayed with high tech fire-retardands, and "firetrucks [sprayed] a nearly constant jet of water on" ground zero."
Indeed, "You couldn't even begin to imagine how much water was pumped in there," said Tom Manley of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the largest fire department union. "It was like you were creating a giant lake."
See also witness statements at the beginning of this video.
For one explanation of why there was molten metal under ground zero for months after 9/11, see this paper. Also see this essay showing that the post-collapse temperatures under Building 7 were very similar to those under Buildings 1 and 2, even though Buildings 1 and 2 were much higher.
Tracking the Rescuers’ Trauma
Even before the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell, Sarah Atlas and her canine partner, Anna, a black-faced German shepherd, were deployed by New Jersey’s Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue. By the end of the day on September 11, they were at Ground Zero, where they stayed for ten days in a fruitless search for survivors.
“The [NYFD] people who called us had been killed,” Atlas considered as she surveyed the tons and acres of wreckage. “Nobody’s going to be alive.” Fires burned and molten steel flowed in the pile of ruins still settling beneath her feet. She wore a respirator to filter out the smoke, dust, and fumes, but Anna worked without a mask to sniff out places where the broken dead lay. Anna is a live-find dog, but she developed a “truly intent stare” that Atlas came to recognize as her response to catching the scent of a corpse. Mostly they found parts.
“These dogs were exposed to huge amounts of known toxins and unthinkable amounts of unknown ones,” says Cynthia Otto, an associate professor in the vet school. Otto is leading a three-year study of the dogs, funded largely by the American Kennel Club.
Anna is part of the study and has been diagnosed with discospondylitis, a bacterial infection in the spinal column. A young dog, she can no longer climb and jump, and has been retired from search and rescue. “The first six weeks after we got home,” reports Atlas, “she just sat around and stared off into space. She’s still not the happy-go-lucky dog she was.”
But it’s not just the animals. The handlers may have worn masks and respirators but that doesn’t mean they were completely protected. When she returned to her home in New Jersey, Atlas began having nightmares, couldn’t remember things, and struggled to find words—even to just say hello. “I couldn’t find my house,” she recalls, “and when I pulled into my driveway the burgundy [walls] hurt my eyes, because all we saw for ten days was gray.” Soon after, she was hospitalized with pneumonia and later diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Melissa Hunt, G’90, Gr’96, associate director of clinical training in the psychology department, was delivering a talk at the vet school about some research she’d been doing on people whose pets had died. Otto approached her after the lecture and invited Hunt to sign on to monitor the emotional health of the dog handlers.
The study uses surveys and interviews to probe for psychological aftershocks that sometimes follow upheavals of extreme stress. “We already have statistically significant results,” Hunt states of comparisons with K-9 search specialists who were not dispatched to Ground Zero or the Pentagon. “The people who were deployed have more depressive symptoms, more anxious symptoms, and more post-traumatic stress symptoms. There’s no question that having gone through those experiences has taken a psychological toll.”
Researchers are conducting structured phone interviews to determine whether the hallmark symptoms being reported—insomnia, nightmares, feelings of numbness, fatigue, being more easily startled or more anxious about the well-being of their dogs—add up to the formal diagnostic criteria for PTSD and other disorders. “Eyeballing the interview data” suggests that many handlers have suffered emotionally from the experience, Hunt says, but most are not presenting a “clinically significant dysfunction.”
Initially, Hunt assumed that psychic trauma would come from seeing gristly sites, but that is turning out to be not quite right. Those who cope best seem to be handlers who have been able to pull meaning out of their search efforts, either those working with cadaver-find dogs who had “successful” missions or those with live-find dogs who could invest recovering the dead with significance. One handler of a dog trained to sniff out survivors reported finding a “piece of flesh,” which he knew would lead to the identification of a family member through DNA testing. “He had a framework for understanding that he had done something that was really valuable,” observes Hunt, “something that was going to be very helpful to living people.”
The study’s findings are preliminary, and any long-term reverberations are only just beginning to be felt. “I think what we’re going to learn from this study is a lot about human vulnerability and human resilience,” Hunt affirms.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Atlas muses, “and yet it does. I’ve been back twice.”
At press time, we learned that Anna had died on August 2. —Editor
Mobilizing Public Health
Turning Terror's Tide with Science
Responding to the September outbreak of terrorism in America, senior School leadership launched in late October a new comprehensive public health initiative to tackle the complex scientific, social, and governmental issues raised by bioterrorism.
"The School recognizes that this is a national public health emergency. The School has, in many ways, unequaled expertise in the issues related to the acute and urgent problem of anthrax bioterrorism and the longer range strategic issues related to all manner of terrorism," says Dean Al Sommer, MD, MHS '73. "Whether it comes through letters or aerosol sprays or poisoning of water or the food system, it's the responsibility of the School to come to our nation's defense."
In the coming months, more than 60 faculty members will work on bioterrorism preparedness, devise new technologies for detecting anthrax, determine the best therapies, study available antibiotics, and recommend how to best contain outbreaks of anthrax and other biologic, chemical, and nuclear hazards.
The School has a three-pronged goal of providing a scientific basis for rational action, timely and accurate advice for the public and professionals, and training modules for targeted audiences, delivered by the Web, simulcasts, and CD-ROMs.
The new initiative, called Public Health Scientists Working to Address Terrorism (SWAT), will work closely with a related University-wide effort. Thomas Burke, PhD, MPH, an associate professor in Health Policy and Management, is the initiative's director. Other steering committee members include Biostatistics professor Ron Brookmeyer, PhD; International Health professor Don Burke, MD; Environmental Health Sciences professor Lynn Goldman, MD, MPH '81; and Tara O'Toole, MD, MPH '88, the director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. Two to four faculty members from each of the School's nine departments have been asked to devote the next month or two to providing immediate input to the effort. The initiative will draw on the broad spectrum of the School's expertise, including surveillance, environmental assessment and clean-up, infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance, vaccine development and testing, legal issues, disaster management, and communication.
The short-term efforts do not mean abandoning the School's long-standing research and teaching priorities, according to Sommer. Rather, the short-term work is a "unique activity in the history of the School in response to an urgent national need," he says. "I don't know of any time in the School's history that this has been done."
Thomas Burke envisions teams of public health researchers, focusing on specific areas and providing technical assistance and guidance and help with communication between the government, public health professionals, and the public. The teams would also bring public health risk assessment, epidemiology, and other tools to provide advice on treatment and management of both patients and the "worried well."
Front-line professionals from across the nation will come to the School for seminars on the latest knowledge in public health preparedness. "You bring in the best and brightest to help them understand the threats and how to attack and ultimately manage them," Burke says.
A former deputy commissioner of health in New Jersey, Burke has seen firsthand the decay in the public health infrastructure through his work and research for reports by the Pew Environmental Health Commission and the Institute of Medicine. He recently secured a $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to design a center of excellence in environmental health practice.
"Right now, the School has all these pockets of expertise," Burke says. "The task is to pull them all together." - Brian W. Simpson
Danger in the Dust
It is 4 a.m. in New York City as four researchers from the School enter the site of the World Trade Center disaster on foot. Each is lugging from 50 to 90 pounds of air-monitoring equipment onto Ground Zero. In the dark, the tangled pile of wreckage takes on a distinctly hellish cast.
"Fires are still actively burning and the smoke is very intense," reports Alison Geyh, PhD. "In some pockets now being uncovered, they are finding molten steel."
Geyh, an assistant scientist with the School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), heads the team of scientists sent by the School in response to a request by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for a coordinated study of the disaster's potential health effects to those in the immediate environment. By attaching personal air monitors to the workers and by placing stationary air sampling pumps outside the periphery of Ground Zero, Geyh (pronounced "Guy") and her colleagues can determine the density of the particulate matter in the air, the size of those particles, and any short-term health effects to those at and around the site.
"This is an incredible situation," she reports. "The recovery and clean-up efforts are going on around the clock. Hundreds of people are at the site every day; and many of them have been there since Sept. 11. Workers at the site want to know what they are breathing and what to do to protect themselves."
This project is "clearly among the most energy-draining experiences of their lives."
- John Groopman
"People have been coming back really frazzled," says John Groopman, PhD. "It's clearly among the most energy-draining experiences of their lives." Groopman, Anna Baetjer Professor and chair of EHS, knows of no analogous research situation. "The fact that thousands of bodies are still hidden in the rubble makes the work very tense [and] changes the tenor of everything."
At every stage of the clean-up operation, plumes of dust and smoke are sent skyward. The Hopkins scientists are also gearing up to measure air quality in the nearby neighborhoods and to enter residences around Ground Zero to collect and study samples of the dust originally produced by the collapse, which has sifted into buildings throughout lower Manhattan. - Rod Graham
The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2002
77 North Washington Street
Unexpectedly, this request was granted, immediately and in full. Langewiesche became the only journalist to be "embedded"—to use the Pentagon term for reporters who live and travel with the units they cover—in the World Trade Center operation. In all he spent nine months at the site. The result is "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," a three-part series that begins in this issue. It is the longest piece of original reporting ever undertaken by The Atlantic Monthly. Later this year the three articles commissioned by the magazine will be assembled into a book and published under the same title by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.