by Ruth Fremson
Story of a Place
Eric Lipton documents the rise and fall of the
World Trade Center
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 Yorks history.
The question Im always asking is, Whats 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 Centers rise and fall, discussing the real
story of a place that, he says, is about much more than a single day.
Lets start at your books 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 its 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. Thats 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 hadnt 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 citys
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 books 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
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, its about choices people make, and
thats 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 didnt. I can answer
some of those questions. I am asked them sometimes. Knowing helps some
Thats 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. Its 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 WTCs 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 1960s.
. I think
its 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