Since skyscrapers are a symbol of Western power for terrorists, we should figure out how to protect them from the fate of the World Trade Center. The lightweight construction that enabled the World Trade Center towers to rise so high proved fatal on September 11, when terrorist-controlled jets easily sliced through them, fatally severing their central cores of elevators, stairs and water lines to sprinklers.
Nobody expects that a building should be able to withstand attacks by jet planes loaded flammable fuel. However, builders may use this as an excuse not to invest in expensive alterations. ''After Pearl Harbor, people didn't say, 'Ships are unsafe (so) you have to build unsinkable ships,''' says builder David Maola. ''No, you have to keep airplanes away from ships?and you have to keep airplanes away from buildings.''
An investigation completed last spring by civil engineers and federal emergency managers explored the causes of the Trade Center collapse. Investigators found that the twin towers withstood the initial impacts of the two airliners, but centrally clustered escape stairwells and fire sprinkler supply lines, which were encased in lightweight walls, were knocked out instantly. Fire was a bigger problem than the actual impacts, because the crashes and flying debris jarred loose spray-on fireproofing from beams and trusses in the twin towers and in a nearby high-rise that also collapsed. The structural steel was softened to the point of collapse by intense blazes that were fed and spread by aviation fuel.
Some skyscrapers that may be possible terrorist targets are currently being strengthened with structural reinforcements and shatterproof windows. The Citigroup Center in New York is having the leg-like support column in front of the building made stronger, so it won?t collapse if the building is bombed.
Emergency agencies are rethinking evacuation plans. In the past, high-rise occupants were told to stay at their desks unless their floor was at immediate risk. But on September 11, the workers who fled the upper floors of the World Trade Center's south tower immediately after seeing the first jet hit the other tower were the ones who survived. Those who obeyed announcements to stay put or go back died when the second airliner struck 16 minutes later. But ''There's no sense in emptying a building with 7,000 or 8,000 people in it if you have a garbage can on fire,'' says Robert Solomon of the National Fire Protection Association. ?Evac kits? containing escape essentials such as glow sticks and water may be given to skyscraper employees.
Engineers who specialize in protecting foreign embassies are now being asked to work on commercial skyscrapers. Inventors are coming up with items like a high-tech hovering rescue platform, rescue slides and quick-pop personal parachutes. ''You can make a building that's fireproof and airplane-proof,'' says consultant Larry Soehren. ''But nobody's going to want to live or work in it'' because it would be a windowless concrete bunker.
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