Stumbling Around

Monday, September 11, 2006

Friend Recalls Fateful Day in World Trade Center

Louis Fournier, Port Authority Engineer Nik Pressley and Port Authorioty Environmental Manager Marvin Kirshner.

Here’s a story that you won’t read anywhere else.

Marvin Kirshner is an exceptional, perhaps gifted, engineer. On Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the second terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, he was working for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as their manager of environmental remediation. In that capacity, he was responsible for contracting consulting and remediation firms to clean up groundwater, soil, surface water, air and other environmental media at the airports serving the New York metropolitan area, all subway and train systems serving New York, and a large number of streets, highways, docks and other facilities in the area. In 2001, his office and the offices of his engineers and staff were located in the World Trade Center on floors 72-74.

Considering that the PA already had approximately 300 consulting firms under contract, I considered it to be a sign of divine intervention when Marvin took an interest in a new approach to soil and groundwater pollution remediation that my company had been developing and contracted with us for several projects at JFK Airport. It was in this capacity that I began working closely with Marvin and his staff beginning in 1993. I soon recognized Marvin’s wonderful talent for performing complex mathematical and engineering computations in his head.

Several times, I would stand in Marvin’s office on the 72nd floor. The view was terrific. As we chatted, several types of planes, including commercial jets, would be flying below me as they approached the three airports. “You know, Marvin,” I would say, “It wouldn’t take anything for one of those planes to hit this building.”

He always responded, “We’ve done a lot of computer modeling of various scenarios. The way this building is designed and constructed, a plane hitting the World Trade Center would be about like sticking a pencil through a screen in a screen door. Sure there would be localized damage, but the building itself would survive.” Knowing the unique construction of the two WTC buildings, that seemed to be a reasonable conclusion to me.

After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, I managed to get in touch with Marvin. My main concern was whether or not he and his staff had been injured (or worse). “What happened?” I asked.

Marvin explained that he had gotten to work early and was working on his computer. Out of the corner of his eye, he just caught sight of the tail of a commercial jet as it headed for the building a few floors above him. He was acutely aware that the impact would, at the very least, knock the windows from his floor and that the wind at that elevation would likely blow people out the building.

He jumped up and yelled, “Get down. Hit the floor. Get away from the windows. Get to the center of the building.” As he yelled he was crouching down himself. He said that everyone was looking at him like he was crazy. Then the plane hit.

The immediate effect, of course, was that the building shook, windows broke or fell out, and people were thrown to the floor. No one was blown out the open windows. Everyone headed for the stairwell in the center of the building. Then Marvin saw two things that broke his heart. The PA had an aggressive “hire the handicapped” program. Some employees were in wheelchairs and others had other handicaps. They could not possibly walk down 72 flights of stairs. They would have to be carried. I have walked down these same stairs before I was handicapped when I was in good health. It was not easy. I cannot imagine carrying others down.

The second thing that Marvin saw was jet fuel cascading down from upper floors. It was on fire. As the jet fuel poured through the ceiling tiles, it set fire to paper, files and combustibles all over the floor and then descended to lower floors and did the same thing.

The sprinkler system reacted as it should, but it did not help. The burning jet fuel simply floated on top of the water. In fact, the water helped the burning jet fuel to spread.

I don’t think any people or clothes caught on fire, but they had their hands full trying to get down 72 floors themselves while carrying others. A fire drill under controlled conditions is one thing. It is something else under the conditions which existed at the World Trade Center on that day. To add to the confusion, as Marvin’s group descended, they encountered other employees from the floors below them trying to use the same stairwell. It got real crowded, real fast.

Then it got real, real difficult. About half way down, they encountered firefighters trying to use the same stairwell to get up to the locations of the fires. They were dragging hoses and other fire-fighting equipment up with them. It was like two freight trains colliding.

Meanwhile, Marvin was doing computations in his head trying to remember just how soft structural steel gets when it’s heated to 1700 F. degrees, the temperature of burning jet fuel. As steel is heated, it loses strength. He concluded that there was no way that the structural steel in the building could possibly hold up the weight of the floors under those conditions. He didn’t know how much time they had, but he was sure that the building was going to collapse.

When they got to street level, he told everyone to keep walking down the street directly away from the building. He told them not to stop, not to look back and to get as far away from the building as possible.

They followed his instructions and were about three blocks away when the first building collapsed. Neither Marvin nor his people, including the handicapped, were injured that day. My personal opinion is that Marvin had a lot to do with that.

I asked Marvin what they had done after the building collapsed.

“We just kept walking,” he said. “We made it to a bridge and got a ride to New Jersey.”

By that time, there were crowds of people walking over the bridge.
Motorists were stopping and filling their vehicles with as many people as possible. He managed to jump in the back of a pickup truck.

I asked Marvin about the modeling. He responded, “All that modeling and no one thought about including the effects of the burning fuel! Garbage in — garbage out! We forgot about the blankedy-blank fuel!”

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