When a reporter hears a building fall 23 minutes before it does, is there a sound?
The view from BBC reporter Jane Standley's window was a spectacular mess. Thick plumes of smoke rose above the New York City skyline, blotting out sunlight and choking the morale of rescue workers trying to salvage human life from the wreckage of the just-collapsed World Trade Center.
It was the afternoon of September 11, 2001, and Standley was responding to questions posed by colleagues in England. "New York very much a city still in chaos," she said. "The phones are not working properly, the subway lines are not working properly, and we know that down there near the World Trade Center there are three schoools that are being turned into triage centres for emergency treatment."
"Jane, what more can you tell us about the Salomon Brothers Building and its collapse?" the desk anchor inquired. "You might have heard a few moments ago that I was talking about the Saloman Brothers building collapsing, and indeed it has. Apparently that's only a few hundred yards away from where the World Trade Center towers were, and it seems this was not a result of a new attack, it was because the building had been weakened during this morning's attacks."
Chyrons agreed, filling the lower-third of the screen with a disturbing epitaph: "47 storey Salomon Brothers Building close to the World Trade Centre has also collapsed."
There was only one slight problem. The Salomon Brothers Building – also known as World Trade Center 7 (WTC7) – hadn't collapsed... and wouldn't for another 23 minutes.
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Regardless of the conspiracies I've reported over the years, I'd honestly like to think a bunch of wingnuts declared war against American decadence on September 11. It certainly makes life easier, and it reduces the number of people looking at me like I'm wearing a tinfoil hat.
As many Americans have come to realize, however, we aren't being told the full story. There are gaping holes in credibility and logic, and accounts of marginalization and secrecy between government agencies and investigators only fuel the fire. Let's face it: When the Transportation Secretary goes on record as saying Vice President Dick Cheney allowed Flight 77 to crash into the Pentagon, questions are raised.
Thermite charges. Doomsday planes. The melting point of steel. USAF stand downs. Box cutters. 9/11 is almost too big to fit into one box; there are too many threads of debate, too much argument over what is true and what isn't. There are any number of talking points about the World Trade Center that enrage opinion on both sides of the aisle, and I think it diverts us all from the main question: Was there foreknowledge of what happened? If so, who was responsible and why was nothing done?
Let's reduce the argument to something simple: How did news agencies know WTC7 would collapse a half-hour before it did? Evidence suggests controlled demolition of the building, and if that hypothesis withstands scrutiny, the implications are far-reaching. Planning to demolish a skyscraper isn't something you do the morning of.
There are first-hand accounts of responders hearing orders to demolish WTC7, including the countdown. The process in which the building fell – straight down into its footprint – is consistent with controlled demolition, not fire. Even World Trade Center complex controller Larry Silverstein stated in PBS' America Rebuilds documentary that the word to "pull" the building was given well before there was any indication the building was in danger of falling over. Neither before nor since that has a building with that structural integrity and such little structural damage fallen. Why assume this one would?
"I remember getting a call from the fire department commander, telling me that they were not sure they were gonna be able to contain the fire," recalled Silverstein. "I said, 'We've had such terrible loss of life, maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it.' And they made that decision to pull and we watched the building collapse."
(Silverstein has since revised his statement, claiming "it" referred to a contingent of firefighters in the building. There were none in WTC7 at the time.)
With many witnesses corroborating the decision to destroy World Trade Center 7, how does one explain the existence of a failsafe detonation device throughout the building? Firefighters obviously weren't running through burning offices planting precision charges while madness consumed the neighborhood around them. The charges would have to have been placed there beforehand, which, when you think about it, is a mighty stupid thing to do unless you already had designs to implode the building in the first place.
Maybe it's through this decisive pre-planning that the BBC came to know about the imminent death of the landmark office building? Who knows. But the official fate of WTC7 doesn't make sense, and having a news report come in prognosticating an unlikely future event doesn't make it any easier to swallow.
Was it simply an error in reporting, as BBC's Richard Potter claims? If so, that's one hell of an amazing mistake. The certainty of the dialogue contradicts his claims they were using half-baked adverbs to cover their errors, and it's not far-reaching to think word of the impending implosion reached a reporter's ears. What marks the BBC's footage as most compelling is that, while Jane Standley is remarking on the chaos 40 floors beneath her, the building her counterpart insists is rubble stands in the background. It gives the definite vibe of someone reading the script too soon – and Standley's feed being cut minutes later doesn't detract from that feeling one bit.
The demise of World Trade Center 7 isn't cause for much sadness; it paved the way for increased rescue efforts even as it destroyed offices for the FBI, DoD, IRS, SEC, and the Secret Service (no doubt making some high-profile criminals very happy). What it does do is raise the spectre of conspiracy for the rest of the events of that day. After all, if people overseeing that building knew there was going to be a massive terrorist attack against the Twin Towers, wouldn't we do all we could to stop it? And when one follow-up question is asked, it's a snowball effect that forces others to consider the way WTC1 and WTC2 fell, how our Air Force didn't defend us in our time of need, and how buildings designed to withstand a plane impact simply did not when the time came.
Questions like those start people wondering about those logic gaps. And soon they can no longer just blame a handful of wingnuts piloting their way into Heaven.
Canon Fodder is a bi-weekly analysis of politics and society.