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The Story of a Place
Eric Lipton documents the rise and fall of the World Trade Center

Interview by Kevin Foley


I write to explain things,” says Eric Lipton ’87, a Pulitzer Prize-winning city reporter at the New York Times and the author, with colleague James Glanz, of City in the Sky, a history of the World Trade Center that features colorful characters, clear explanations of complex financing and engineering, and a rich slice of New York’s history. “The question I’m always asking is, ‘What’s really going on here?’” On September 11, 2001, Lipton began looking into the World Trade Center, devoting thousands of working hours to chronicling a building with a dramatic and distinctly American tale of dreams, ego, money, politics, ingenuity, and perseverance. Lipton, a philosophy and history major who moved from writing movie reviews for the Vermont Cynic to reporting for the Hartford Courant, Washington Post, and the New York Times before he turned 40, reversed his usual role and answered questions from Vermont Quarterly about the World Trade Center’s rise and fall, discussing the real story of a place that, he says, is about much more than a single day.

Let’s start at your book’s end: Tell me a little bit about your experience of September 11, as a reporter and New Yorker.

My experience was like that of a lot of New Yorkers; I was on my way to work. I live in the West Village, and on the way to my subway station, I looked down Seventh Avenue and saw the towers burning. The fires were 20 blocks away from where I live, but they overwhelmed the view. I just stood there in the crowd… I had been on my way to a polling place to cover the mayoral primary but, from then on, my local coverage ended for all but two years. I became part of a group of reporters who wrote exclusively about the attack and the aftermath.

How did that work transform into a book?

Shortly after 9-11 [co-author] Jim Glanz and I got hooked up with each other. He has a Ph.D. in astrophysics. He understood the physics of the structure. I knew the players in city hall. Covering the story over time put us in places and situations that were hard to comprehend... like being underground and walking through the shopping center in the WTC concourse, and seeing the 9-11 newspapers on the ground, everything covered in pulverized concrete dust, and a handprint on a payphone receiver.

There was another scene where Jim and I were at a scrap yard in New Jersey watching them dumping steel from the towers into the hold of a cargo ship and there was dust and this tremendous noise and we were thinking, “This is what it’s come to.”

I really wanted to understand how we had come to this. That story of the steel being thrown into the ship was more than the story of a single day. That steel came from somewhere, from factories all over the United States, each piece of it carefully collected and engineered, and we were only telling the stories of the final part of the day. In order to tell what happened on 9-11, we needed to understand the broader story of that place.

What was the most intellectually engaging part of the process for you?

I was a history and philosophy major at UVM, so I was inclined to think a lot about how history is not predetermined. So much about this story could have been different. When you think about things that occur you presume that they could only happen one way, but what you realize when you study history is that so much about it is subject to choices that people make which do not seem that significant at the time, but once assembled, determine the course of history.

That history encompasses lots of characters — wily financiers, tortured architects, inspired activists. Can you sketch one individual who particularly stood out as you researched and wrote the book?

Any project as big as the World Trade Center requires monumental figures to get it done. The story is filled with people who are bigger than life and had enormous egos and determination. One who stands out is Guy Tozzoli, who was essentially a Port Authority bureaucrat. He was the only person who was with the WTC from its creation through its destruction. Just an unbelievable guy. Even the way he talked with his raspy voice and salty language and his superlatives and his refusal to ever back down on any idea he had — in his eighties he was proposing a new master plan to rebuild the site.

The book describes how planners cleared 16 acres of Manhattan and built the then-tallest buildings in the world — the process was complex, surprising to outsiders, and at times cynical. Tell me a little about the bureaucratic maneuvering that led to the construction.

The reason the Trade Center was built was really the fear that Midtown Manhattan was eclipsing Lower Manhattan, that the birthplace of New York was becoming irrelevant. There was a fear that there would be an exodus from the old buildings downtown. That’s why David Rockefeller [who had built the Chase Bank headquarters in Lower Manhattan] conceived it. The Port Authority stepped in because of its enormous fund-raising from tolls and bridges, and because it also felt it hadn’t done enough for New York City and had allowed the pier along the Hudson to decline. Their proposal was to build a new “vertical port.” They proposed a building complex that was bigger than anyone had ever conceived. It was bigger than it needed to be, so big that it overwhelmed the real estate market. It inspired incredible resistance from small merchants and from midtown financiers who were threatened by building 10 million square feet of office space downtown. So this was a turning point for New York, and in some sense for American history. It was the last great urban renewal. After this, big projects like this stopped happening. You could have a long argument over whether or not the project was successful. It ultimately did make Lower Manhattan relevant again. And the reason it became the target it did was that it was a symbol of American prowess and economic might. The builders strove to create that image, and they succeeded.

One striking aspect of the book is the detailed description of the towers’ engineering. Briefly, tell me what was so innovative about the way the towers were put together.

The traditional skyscraper is a building that is filled with steel columns that support the weight of the structure. The World Trade Center was not the first to eliminate most of the internal columns, but it was certainly the biggest and pushed that theory to the extreme more than any building ever since. What they did was put much of the structural support in the exterior columns, which in most buildings are just facades, decorative. Architect Minoru Yamasaki, in collaboration with structural engineers, had them hold up 40 percent or so of the weight of the building with another set of supporting columns at the core of the buildings by the elevators. It was incredibly innovative. It changed the physics of the building in fundamental ways. It meant that on 9-11, when the exterior columns were pierced, they were able to redistribute the weight and create what is called a Vierendeel truss around the hole blown in the building. So to the initial impact, the buildings were more robust [than those with more conventional construction]. But the design included a floor system that was relatively lightweight and insufficiently fireproofed…

The book points out that because the Port Authority, a special governmental entity, built the towers, they did not have to comply with the city’s building code. Did that play a role in the collapse?

Clearly, as originally built, they were not sufficiently fireproof. You could argue that this was disgraceful in a building that tall with that many people. Conditions improved after 1993, the first bombing, when thousands of people were trapped in totally dark stairwells… by 2001 a lot of improvements had been completed. But you have to remember, the building code does not anticipate an airplane impact. WTC engineers actually did address the airplane question before construction, given that the towers were the tallest buildings in the world and sited in the midst of three airports. They had anticipated the possibility that an airplane could hit [and found that the towers would not collapse if struck by a 707 airliner]. But the calculations were incomplete, and if they were going to make such an assertion they had an obligation to make sure that they knew. If a tower is rebuilt on the site, the planners are going to have to be more forthright.

The book’s discussion of fireproofing is troubling. An engineer specified an amount — but there was no evidence that his approach was ever tested in a furnace, as is required by code. Were the builders so intent on their project that they skipped testing that might have derailed it?

Perhaps. There was no document indicating that the steel was ever furnace-tested. Because they were exempt, they did not have to demonstrate that their fireproofing approach worked, and its failure is considered one of the two best explanations for why the towers collapsed.

History is not about fate, it’s about choices people make, and that’s what the book is about, examining how choices played out in the lives of the 2,700 people who died. One of the most disturbing things for me was to come to understand why certain people on certain floors died and others lived on 9-11. If you study it enough, you can understand why some people died and others didn’t. I can answer some of those questions. I am asked them sometimes. Knowing helps some people.

That’s terrible knowledge, a terrible conversation to have. Has spending so much time with this changed you?

It has changed my life. The experience of 9-11 is something I think about every day. It’s still a very traumatic event for me personally. But being a metro reporter at a major American newspaper in a major American city is a job where you are regularly dealing with realities which are very intense. You are constantly being thrown into things like this and being an observer. I still feel sometimes, and I felt for months, probably more than a year, a strong sense of dislocation from what was going on in New York and the country, because many people had moved beyond September 11 and I had not. But that said, our book is a book about a place, and not a book about a day.

As plans for the WTC’s future emerge, are you seeing any echoes of the past?

There are a lot of parallels. With the [proposed 1,776-foot] Freedom Tower, you almost have a gut desire to see something taller and more dominant in the Lower Manhattan skyline where the twin towers were. But is that justification to build the tallest building in the world? Why are they building 10 million square feet of space when the vacancy rate is over 15 percent in Lower Manhattan? The fate of the area is up in the air now in a way that was similar to the way it was — will it continue to be a center of finance? Even the safety issues involved in the reconstruction of the towers have parallels. I heard [site designers] David Childs and Daniel Libeskind say that the Freedom Towers are going to be the safest buildings in the world. I had to interrupt them and say that, with all due respect, that was exactly was the Port Authority said about the original World Trade Center back in the 1960’s. …. I think it’s instructive to look at the past, not to see what is going to happen now, but to see what mistakes were made then and hopefully avoid them.