In Twisted Steel, a Solemn 9/11 Memorial

Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology were studying steel from the World Trade Center to learn why the twin towers fell.
Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology were studying steel from the World Trade Center to learn why the twin towers fell. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Thursday, September 11, 2008

One of the most moving memorials in our area may be 236 pieces of rusty steel sitting in two parking lots in Gaithersburg. They're from the twin towers, pulled from salvage yards and landfills in the months after the terrorist attacks and sent to the National Institute of Standards and Technology to find out exactly why the buildings fell on that blue-sky morning seven years ago today.

Half of the steel rests near the institute's Engineering Mechanics Building. The other half is near what's called the Large Fire Facility. Bent, twisted and fractured, the shattered metal bespeaks the violence that claimed the World Trade Center and 2,751 lives. And yet in its mute repose it possesses a certain somber beauty, too.

The buildings' long columns -- the skeleton that held up the 110-story towers -- are oxidized now, painted in shades of red, brown and ocher. Surface rust flakes from some of the massive beams, calling to mind lichens spreading on fallen oaks. Patterns of scrapes and scratches look like hieroglyphs rendered by an unknown hand.

One set of columns, still joined by the horizontal spandrel that linked the steel in groups of three, is bent, the now-prone metal seeming to reach skyward like the curving fingers of a hand. It's from the 96th floor of the North Tower, where American Airlines Flight 11 hit.

Shyam Sunder, the institute's lead investigator on the trade center, was at a conference in Poland on Sept. 11, 2001. Even before he'd arrived back home, he and other institute staffers were planning how best to learn from the collapse and prevent another. By February 2002, the first steel had arrived in Gaithersburg, rescued from the scrap heap by members of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Structural Engineers Association of New York, who spray-painted column after column with the same word: "SAVE."

I asked Shyam what went through his mind when he first saw the steel.

"The first reaction is not a clinical reaction," he said. "The first reaction is an emotional reaction for almost anyone involved with 9/11. This is part of history. This is something horrendous that has happened to our nation. . . . When we started looking at these, you could see pieces of wire there, pieces of carpet and so forth, which gave the sense that people lived here, were part of these buildings."

The researchers had to try to put such associations out of their minds to become more clinical as they concentrated on the complex calculations needed to reconstruct the collapse. They sampled the steel, gauging its properties at room temperature, under the strain of an airplane strike and in the inferno of the fires. More than 200 institute staffers and contractors worked on what Shyam called "the most complex analysis that's been done in the field of structural engineering."

To plot the minute-by-minute progress of the fires, one person took on the responsibility of examining more than 7,000 photos of the stricken towers and viewing 150 hours of video footage. He watched as a hundred people jumped to their deaths.

"Of course it takes a toll," Shyam said. "Many of our folks, the people who did the interviews of first responders and surviving occupants, all of these people obviously had to balance the emotions with the science they were committed to working on."

A chalky white material sticks to some of the steel columns, but only in the smallest of patches. And this, it turns out, is a clue. The material is a gypsum-based fireproofing material, much of which was dislodged by the violence of the planes' impacts. The steel was left exposed as the contents of the offices -- the desks, the chairs, the cubicle walls -- burned with an intense heat. The columns were weakened by the fire and bowed in, reducing their ability to hold the floors above.

The tangle of twisted steel will eventually be taken away, some of it no doubt for memorials -- real memorials -- in other cities.

"We recognize it's not going to be here forever," Shyam said. "I guess it hasn't really hit us yet what it will be like without these pieces of steel."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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