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Explaining the WTC disaster in gibberish
Star Ledger - Thursday, April 07, 2005

NEW YORK -- Fear. Panic. Confusion. Contradictory advice. Imagine what it was like high up the towers of the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Imagine it -- or, if that is too uncomfortable, try to tame it all, bleach it of its dark horror in the sort of euphemisms employed by one federal bureaucracy the other day. Calling those chilling, sweaty, fateful moments "evacuation initiation delay."

The words, and more like them, come from the report of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, a relatively new agency that is conducting an investigation into how and why the center's two towers collapsed after they were struck by hijacked airplanes.

This investigation -- unlike that of, say, the 9/11 commission or congressional committees -- is supposed to be grounded solely in science. No political considerations here. None of the soft if hyperbolic language of "massive failure of imagination," as the commission contended. Just technical stuff.

Yet science, if that is what the agency is pursuing, apparently does not demand clarity, and lack of clarity allows for interpretations, and varying interpretations simply mean the truth will remain elusive.

Try this paragraph about delays in evacuating the South Tower ("WTC2"), the one that was hit second but collapsed first:

"The floor an occupant was on when WTC1 was attacked (distance to safety) increased the probability of encountering an environmental cue (smoke, damage, fire, etc.). Additionally, being on a higher floor predicted greater evacuation initiation delay times and encountering environmental cues, which predicted higher normalized stairwell travel time. Independently, interrupting evacuation for any reason increased the normalized stairwell travel time."

Clarity? In short, the higher up someone was -- "occupant" sounds absurdly like an address label on a supermarket flier -- the longer it would take for that person to get down, especially if that person encountered fire or stopped to talk to other workers.

Bureaucrats often cannot avoid language like that, as if the odd jargon were hard-wired to their souls. But the words, like a shady freelance tour guide accosting you on a tropical island, want to lead you astray, take you to places where perhaps you'd rather not be, for a price you can't afford.

Where it takes you is away from consideration of why, for example, some people who began to evacuate the second tower returned -- some to their deaths.

That could be called "interrupting evacuation for any reason," or it could be called something both simpler and more chilling: an announcement over the PA system at 9 a.m. in Tower Two that people should return to their offices.

Shyam Sunder, the lead investigator who delivered several reports the other day, pointed out that another announcement was made within a few minutes. It was: "The situation is in Building One. However, if conditions on your floor warrant, you may wish to start an orderly evacuation."

Clarity? Or language that leads you astray? Words then made the difference between life and death. Those people had little of what NIST calls "situational awareness" -- they didn't know what was happening.

The interim reports covered many issues -- fireproofing; the failure of radios used by emergency workers; the inability of those workers, for whatever reason, to work together to get some notion of what was really happening.

This sentence, while clearer than many, still bears the deceptive lightness of euphemism despite its darkly implicit conclusion: "Lack of timely information sharing and inadequate communications capabilities likely contributed to the loss of emergency responder lives."

What does it mean? Bad radios killed? If so, who bought them? Who maintained them? Who's responsible?

Did the frat-like rivalries between cops and firefighters mean people would die? If so, who should have cut through puerility to ensure effective emergency response? The agency won't issue a final report until June, so it's too early to know whether it will get us closer to, or further from, the truth. Closer to or further from accountability.

Its use of euphemism is not comforting. Not in the report and not even in a statement given out by the institute in which it describes itself as an office of the federal Commerce Department that "develops and promotes measurement, standards and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life."


Bob Braun's columns appear Monday and Thursday. He can be reached at (973) 392-4281 or at


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Monica Gabrielle,

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