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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, January 18, 2018

I Thought It Was a Nuclear Bomb Exploding

Recently people in Hawaii had a nuclear scare, as a false alert went out warning of an incoming missile. Those to blame for this event include a person operating a computer system, and the designers of the computer system, who made it too easy for such an operator to make a mistake. The incident reminded of the time I thought I was actually witnessing a nuclear bomb going off.

I have lived through two different terror bombings of the World Trade Center in New York. The first occurred on February 26, 1993 at 12:17 PM. I had a 12:30 lunch date with the woman who was then my fiancee and is now my wife. The lunch date was in the Sbarro's restaurant on the ground floor of the World Trade Center.

What occurred was an interesting illustration of how people will misidentify something they have never seen before, interpreting it as something they have seen before. Upon entering the World Trade Center, I saw a huge cloud of dust in its halls. The bomb had gone off a few minutes before I came in. At this time almost no one was thinking about any chance of terrorism in New York. So I did not at all think to myself: this must be a terrorist attack. Instead, I said something like, “Wow, I can't believe how careless those construction workers were – look at all the dust they kicked up.” Even with this huge cloud of dust in the halls, the food servers at Sbarro's kept trying to do their jobs. The police then told everyone to leave the building.

The first bombing of the World Trade Center did relatively little damage. People kind of said, “Those clumsy terrorists – their attempts at destruction are a joke.” Only a few years later, the people at the company where I was working had the idea of moving to a new building, and they chose the World Trade Center, which would turn out to be a horrible mistake. It's amazing how everyone paid little attention to a threat that had been clearly announced by the 1993 bombing.

I got into work at 7:00 AM on the morning of September 11, 2001, and took the elevator up to the fortieth floor of the World Trade Center. I was completely absorbed in what I was doing on my computer when the first hijacked jet liner crashed into the building. There was a very loud noise, and a tremendous jolt, like some giant hand was shaking the whole building.

I jumped up to look out the window, and then immediately saw a huge fall of flaming debris. It looked rather like a huge chunk of the upper building was collapsing in flames. Terrified, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Get the f*** out!” I then ran for the stairs.

As I started to run down the stairs, I had a fleeting thought that a nuclear bomb had exploded. People had long feared that someone would sneak a small nuclear bomb into the city. What I had witnessed up until this point was consistent with a small nuclear weapon going off at ground level.

My chances looked good after I had passed down a few flights of stairs. There was no one in front of me. Then I encountered some smoke on the stairs. I remember thinking: this is it, I'm going to die. But the smoke cleared as I passed down several floors lower. At some point I encountered lots of water pouring out into the stairway. But after passing down a few more floors, I passed through the part that was flooded.

Eventually the stairs started to fill up with people exiting the building, and the stairways become clogged with people. The downward flow of people stopped entirely. I thought to myself: what could be causing the delay? It turned out to be a delay caused by people letting firefighters walk up the stairs. What went on at this time made no sense from a safety standpoint. No one should have tried to walk up the stairs until they had become uncrowded, so that as many people as possible could have exited. I will never forget the worried, tired look of the brave firefighters as they walked up those stairs. Many of them never made it out.

Finally, after about 20 minutes, I got down to the ground floor. I was now in the elevator lobby of the World Trade Center. I looked in amazement at one of the elevator entrance doors. They were all charred and black, as if someone had torched them with a flame thrower. This could have been flames traveling down the elevator shaft.

I made it into the shopping mall area of the World Trade Center, and was drenched by sprinklers that had been activated by the fire. Finally I made it out of the building. When I looked up at the top of the building, I saw a huge column of black smoke rising up from the top of the building. I walked home all the way from lower Manhattan to the Jackson Heights neigborhood of Queens. While passing around the Times Square area, I saw some giant TV screen showing the World Trade Center buildings collapsing. I was dumbfounded. I thought the buildings would last for a thousand years.

I knew one person who died in the attack, a very smart young man named Scott. Scott first appeared on our work scene in a rather lowly position, but later I overheard him interviewing for a programming position in a cubicle near mine. I was amazed by what I heard – it was like he had an encyclopedic grasp of the technology we were using. I wasn't surprised at all when he was hired as a programmer, nor was I surprised when he started rising up in the company as a technical manager. Apparently he had risen rather high in the company by September 11, 2001, for he worked on one of the high floors of the World Trade Center where pretty much only the upper echelons worked. It was, tragically, a case of rising too fast and too high in the organization, because nobody on those highest floors of the World Trade Center made it out.

They have made an impressive memorial to those who died in the World Trade Center attack. It is a beautiful and dignified monument. But in a book of alternate designs submitted for the memorial, I saw a design I liked a lot more. The design proposed a structure consisting of thousands of suspended bells, each with the name of a person on it. The great thing about such a design is that it could have turned the World Trade Center area from a place of sorrow to a place of joy – because children would have taken great delight in ringing all the suspended bells. 

Memorial at the World Trade Center

Sadly, there is a substantial risk of another terrorist attack, perhaps one much worse than the September 11 attacks. The problem is that the materials to make nuclear bombs are scattered all over the world. If you are in a skyscraper, and you ever think a nuclear attack has occurred, don't look out the window like I did – for it could be a flash that could blind you. Instead, run for the stairwells, and try to stay there as long as you can, doing what they call “shelter in place.” The area inside a stairwell of a skyscraper offers excellent shielding against radiation. The radiation from a nuclear bomb would decrease by about 50% every day. So anyone willing to wait several days in a stairwell could then emerge into an environment with much less radiation.

Postscript: Several months before September 11, 2001, I had a dream the World Trade Center was collapsing. In my dream I started out inside one of the WTC towers, and the floor underneath me gave way, and I began a long plunge. I told my wife the day of the dream that I had dreamed that the World Trade Center had collapsed. I have never had any other dream of a building collapsing.