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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Requiem for a cathedral to power

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

The soaring silver shafts of the World Trade Center symbolized America's power at its zenith. By mid-morning yesterday, the twin towers had vanished, and with it, the country's sense of security.

This is the obituary of the World Trade Center (1970-2001). It was an icon of American hubris. Yesterday's terrorist attack was unprecedented in world history. The hits on the twin towers by two hijacked airplanes were as audacious as blowing up the Pyramids would have been in the age of the Pharoahs, as daring as demolishing the Great Wall of China in the reign of the Emperor Qin Shihuang.

For the 50,000 who worked there, the address was a status symbol, an ego rush, the financial centre's most prestigious address. To the tourists who visit it each year, it was a draw as strong as the Statue of Liberty.

But to the terrorists who hate America's power, striking the World Trade Center was irresistible, as emblematic and traumatic as a presidential assassination. They bombed the towers once before, in 1993, with a truckload of explosives. Six died and more than 1,000 were injured. Yesterday, unknown terrorists returned, and finished the job. The death toll won't be known for days.

Like a massive funeral pyre, billowing black smoke engulfed Manhattan's trademark skyline. Millions watched in disbelief on television as the towers, like a Hollywood special effect, imploded and collapsed in a roaring heap of stainless steel and glass.

As New York's tallest building, the World Trade Center was a must-see destination for tourists. About 90,000 visitors headed there every day. The lines for the observation deck were so long that guidebooks recommended going very early or very late.

Two weeks ago, I took my family there on a clear morning, just like yesterday's. Mindful of the guidebooks, we went early to avoid the crowds, arriving just before the 9:30 a.m. opening. Probably there were tourists waiting to go up yesterday. Hopefully, they all got out.

Like virtually everyone who works there, we took the subway to the centre that morning. From the steaming subterranean depths of Cortlandt station, we emerged into a vast cool lobby, perhaps 10 times the size of any lobby in a Toronto bank tower. This was a cathedral to power, an expanse of gleaming white marble, red carpets and soaring ceilings. It was so enormous you wondered how they managed to decorate it at Christmas.

As a temple to commerce, though, the World Trade Center does not put on airs. Making a buck is part of the equation. And so each tourist planning to go to the top is ordered to stand in front of a fake backdrop of the twin towers. Before you realize what is happening, someone has snapped your photo. Ben, 11, blinked. Sam, 8, didn't even have time to make his usual silly face. Then a clerk handed us a number scrawled on a yellow Post-It note. We'd understand later, she said.

We passed through a security check. Guards opened our bags and put them through a scanner. One by one, we walked through a metal detector. They stopped my husband, briefly, because on his waist purse he was carrying a Leatherman tool kit: a penknife with a three-inch blade, a screwdriver and pliers.

"Ridiculous," he muttered to me. "Who would want to try anything at the World Trade Center?"

"Terrorists," I replied.

Minoru Yamasaki, the Seattle-born architect who designed it, was the surprise choice in an international competition. Until then, his tallest building was a Detroit tower a mere 30 storeys. But Yamasaki played on the all-American instinct to be the biggest and the best. Size did matter.

"In my opinion," he wrote in a letter to the design board, "this should not be an overall form which melts into the multi-tiered landscape of lower Manhattan, but it should be unique and have excitement of its own."

And so it did. From all over the island of Manhattan, you could orient yourself by its minimalist twin towers, which appeared to float above the din and the dust.

The original plan called for only 80- or 90-storey towers. But the owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, decided that its headquarters should be the world's tallest. The suggestion was said to have originated with its public-relations staff. In early 1964, Guy Tozzoli, a Port Authority official, ordered Yamasaki to "go higher than the Empire State."

The architect had once worked for Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the firm that built the Empire State Building in 1931. For decades, that building held the record for the world's tallest skyscraper. And it stood firm when, in 1945, an Army Air Corps B-25 twin engine bomber crashed into its 79th floor in dense fog, killing 13.

As per his orders, Yamasaki made the World Trade Center 30 metres taller than the Empire State Building. One year after the towers were completed, the Sears Tower in Chicago became the world's tallest building. And the Sears Tower was surpassed in 1998 by the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

But Yamasaki's towers became the first supertall building designed without masonry. Engineers used an innovative "hollow tube" of steel columns, supported from the exterior, instead of the usual interior. Unlike other towers of glass, the World Trade Center appeared to have a skin of silver. In fact, windows covered only 30 per cent of its surface, perhaps reflecting Yamasaki's fear of heights.

That morning, the Skylobby elevators zipped us up so fast that Ben flicked on the stopwatch on his watch. He timed it at 10 storeys in four seconds. That's 27 feet per second, according to the World Trade Center's Web site.

We got off at the 110th floor. It was dazzling. You could sit on little benches, your knees pressed to the glass, and stare straight down, down, down. Or you could stand behind a railing, and feel a bit safer.

Everything in Manhattan looks puny from this vantage point. The people were smaller than ants. The helicopters passed below you. As we slowly made the circuit of the windows, we spotted all the sites we had visited a few days earlier: to the south, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; to the east, the Brooklyn Bridge and the South Street Seaport; to the north, Fifth Avenue, Central Park and Harlem. To the west, we could see New Jersey.

The observatory was so vast that we lost track of one another. I ended up with Ben in a dark theatre, on a shaky chair, watching a silly video of New York by helicopter. My husband, Norman, stuck with Sam, and grumpily spent the time looking for us.

If the view bored you, you could examine the murals on the inner walls relating the history of New York: the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Wall Street, Broadway. I remember that they misspelled Laurence Olivier. (They called him "Lawrence.")

If you got hungry, there were fast-food restaurants, ready to sell you an expensive hot dog or a wedge of pizza at 10 a.m. Souvenir shops offered snow globes and china mugs, 3-D puzzles and the inevitable T-shirts. If those workers had to go in early to open the stalls, they probably never made it out alive.

We passed by the photo booth, and understood the significance of the Post-It note. A clerk asked us for our number. Then she whipped out the colour prints of our family standing in front of the fake backdrop. Ben's eyes were shut. For $10, I could have it. For $14, I could have two copies. I declined. Disgustedly, she tossed the photos in the wastebasket.

We took an escalator up one more flight, past a sleepy guard, to the roof. Although the stream of visitors never stopped, it didn't feel crowded. Even the helipad looked small.

Outside, the security measures seemed designed to protect everyone else from us. It would be tough even to fling a dime off the roof. There were surveillance cameras everywhere. A high railing kept us on the visitors deck. Even if we managed to climb over it and down into a moat-like chasm, it seemed impossible to get over a high chain-link fence, topped with circles of razor wire and inward-facing metal spears.

The twin towers were built to withstand earthquakes and, apparently, garage bombings. But no one imagined direct hits by passenger jets. For that, they put a little light on top that twinkled: Don't hit me.

In hindsight, the World Trade Center's vulnerability is obvious. What could be a more effective bomb than a giant kamikaze plane, attacking with a split second's notice? You get to kill the crew and passengers too. Was it any accident that the terrorists' airline of choice was American Airlines?

After our visit that August day, we went down to the vast plaza. Ben and Sam flung pennies into a huge granite fountain, until a security guard told them us in the nicest possible way to stop. I hope he's still alive.

The World Trade Center sits atop New York's largest indoor mall. But the weather was too glorious to spend shopping. At noon, we sat in the plaza, bought Sam a hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard, and listened to a free jazz concert. Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire candidate for mayor of New York, took advantage of the crowd to have his minions give out free transistor radios. It was classic American capitalism: The dial was immovable. If you took his radio, you listened to the radio station he owned, or nothing.

Yesterday, the twin towers dissolved like sand castles on a beach. Yamasaki died of cancer in 1986 at 73. He said this about his master work: "The World Trade Center buildings in New York . . . had a bigger purpose than just to provide room for tenants. The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man's dedication to world peace."

Yesterday, I phoned my boys from the newsroom. They had just gotten back from school and had already heard. Ben, who is in Grade 6, felt scared. Sam, who just started Grade 3, couldn't comprehend.

I told him that two airplanes had deliberately hit the World Trade Center. "Why'd they do that on purpose?" he said, his high-pitched child's voice rising in bewilderment.

Before I could explain, Sam burst out. "Oh, I know. I know. Probably the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building paid them because they wanted to be the tallest. So right now," he concluded with the assurance of an eight-year-old, "the Empire State Building is the tallest."

Gently, I told him that many, many people had died. He was momentarily sad. Then the puzzlement regained the upper hand. "So why'd they do it?" he persisted.

A good question. I didn't know what to say.


Life Goes On

Voices From After the Fall, The Facts Behind the Fear, and the preview of a new Discovery documentary filmed at Ground Zero.


(RealPlayer required)

  • Six-month Memorial for Sept. 11 - U.S. President George Bush speaks from the White House. "The terrorists will remember Sept. 11 as the day their reckoning began," he said.

  • In Canada - Relatives of Canadian victims of the World Trade Centre attacks wonder why there's no six-month memorial here at home. video reports

  • Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.
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