When the first plane flew into the World Trade Center on 9-11, many, including government officials, were unsure of the cause. It was only when the second plane smashed into the South Tower that it became apparent we were under attack.
Even after both buildings had been hit, the fire chief treated this as a fire on the upper floors. He told the mayor that they could rescue “everyone below the fire”, implying that all the casualties would be above where the planes hit. People in the South Tower were told to remain in their offices and there are numerous recordings of office workers telling loved ones that they were safe.
But, as we all know now, the scope of the disaster was far beyond a fire on a few floors. The unusual construction of the towers – with its interlocking steel exteriors to support the weight of the building – also made it susceptible to its demise. And such a massive implosion had untold impacts on anything in its wake on the ground.
At the scene, the governor remarked that he expected to find piles of desks, computers and furniture in the rubble of 110 floors of office space. But there was none. Within 102 minutes both buildings had collapsed, pulverizing everything in its path. And despite extensive forensic and archeological excavating, there were not even remains found for 40% of those who died in the buildings.
Not that anyone could have ever predicted that two of the tallest buildings in the United States would be decimated in under two hours, but If there is a lesson for future disasters, it is to assume the worst and to act accordingly. To err on the side of caution may be trite, but it is also true.