Collapse of the World Trade Center

The collapse of 2 World Trade Center seen from Williamsburg, Brooklyn

New York City's World Trade Center was destroyed during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, after being struck by two hijacked commercial airliners.[1] The North Tower was hit at 8:46 am and collapsed at 10:28 am. The South Tower was hit at 9:03 am and collapsed at 9:59 am. The resulting debris severely damaged or destroyed more than a dozen other adjacent and nearby structures, ultimately leading to the collapse of Seven World Trade Center at 5:21 pm.[2]

As a result of the attacks to the towers, a total of 2,763 people died including 2,192 civilians, 343 firefighters, and 71 law enforcement officers as well as all the passengers and crew on the airplanes, including 147 civilians and the 10 hijackers.[3]

The scale of the destruction initially puzzled engineers, who had expected the buildings to survive airplane impacts. In September 2005, the National Institute of Standards and Technology published the results of its investigation into the collapse. The investigators did not find anything substandard in the design of the twin towers, noting that the severity of the attacks was beyond anything experienced in buildings in the past. They determined the fires to be the main cause of the collapses, finding that sagging floors pulled inward on the perimeter columns, causing them to bow and then to buckle. Once the upper section of the building began to move downwards, a total progressive collapse was unavoidable.[4]

The cleanup of the World Trade Center site involved round-the-clock operations, many contractors and subcontractors, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The demolition of the surrounding damaged buildings continued even as new construction proceeded on the Twin Towers' replacement, One World Trade Center, which was opened in November 2014. As of July 2019, five new buildings had been erected on the site; the last one, Two World Trade Center, is scheduled for completion in 2022.


When they were completed in 1973, the Twin Towers were the tallest buildings in the world. Though they used a novel design, they were thought to be among the strongest structures ever built relative to their weight. The design engineers had even considered the possibility of aircraft impacts. Fire had never before been known to cause the collapse of a skyscaper, and much effort was subsequently devoted to understanding what happened.[5]

Structural design

The towers were designed as "framed tube" structures, which provided tenants with open floor plans uninterrupted by columns or walls. Numerous, closely spaced perimeter columns provided much of the strength to the structure, along with gravity load shared with the steel box columns of the core. Above the tenth floor, there were 59 perimeter columns along each face of the building, and there were 47 heavier columns in the core. All of the elevators and stairwells were located in the core, leaving a large column-free space between it and the perimeter that was bridged by prefabricated floor trusses.[6]

The floors consisted of 4-inch-thick (10 cm) lightweight concrete slabs laid on a fluted steel deck. A grid of lightweight bridging trusses and main trusses supported the floors with shear connections to the concrete slab for composite action.[6] The trusses had a span of 60 feet (18 m) in the long-span areas and 35 feet (11 m) in the short-span area.[6] The trusses connected to the perimeter at alternate columns, and were therefore on 6.8-foot (2.1 m) centers. The top chords of the trusses were bolted to seats welded to the spandrels on the exterior side and a channel welded to interior box columns on the interior side. The floors were connected to the perimeter spandrel plates with viscoelastic dampers, which helped reduce the amount of sway felt by building occupants.

The towers also incorporated a "hat truss" or "outrigger truss" located between the 107th and 110th floors, which consisted of six trusses along the long axis of core and four along the short axis. This truss system allowed optimized load redistribution of floor diaphragms between the perimeter and core, with improved performance between the different materials of flexible steel and rigid concrete allowing the moment frames to transfer sway into compression on the core, which also mostly supported the transmission tower.

Safety concerns regarding aircraft impacts

The structural engineers working on the World Trade Center considered the possibility that an aircraft could crash into the building. In July 1945, a B-25 bomber that was lost in the fog had crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. A year later, a C-45F Expeditor[7] crashed into the 40 Wall Street building,[8] and there was a near-hit at the Empire State Building.[9] Leslie Robertson, one of the chief engineers working on the design of the World Trade Center, has since said he personally considered the scenario of the impact of a Boeing 707 or another jet airliner, which might be lost in the fog and flying at relatively low speeds while seeking to land at either JFK Airport or Newark Airport. However, in an interview with the BBC, Robertson claimed that, "with the 707, the fuel load was not considered in the design, I don't know how it could have been considered."[9][10]

During their investigation into the collapse, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found a three-page white paper that mentioned aircraft-impact of a Boeing 707 at 600 miles per hour (970 km/h). The original documentation of the study, which was part of the building's 1,200-page structural analysis, was lost when the records in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's offices were destroyed in the collapse of the 1 WTC; the copy was lost in 7 WTC.[11] In 1993, John Skilling, lead structural engineer for the WTC, recalled doing the analysis, and remarked, "Our analysis indicated the biggest problem would be the fact that all the fuel (from the airplane) would dump into the building. There would be a horrendous fire. A lot of people would be killed", he said. "The building structure would still be there."[12] In its report, NIST stated that the technical ability to perform a rigorous simulation of aircraft impact and ensuing fires is a recent development, and that the technical capability for such analysis would have been quite limited in the 1960s.[13][note 1]


In April 1970, the New York City Department of Air Resources ordered contractors building the World Trade Center to stop the spraying of asbestos as an insulating material.[14] Fireproofing was incorporated in the original construction and more was added after a fire in 1975 that spread to six floors before being extinguished. After the 1993 bombing, inspections found fireproofing to be deficient. The Port Authority was in the process of replacing it, but replacement had been completed on only 18 floors in 1 WTC, including all the floors affected by the aircraft impact and fires,[15] and on 13 floors in 2 WTC, although only three of these floors (77, 78, and 85) were directly affected by the aircraft impact.[16][note 2]