11 Sept. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

Get Away From the Window

That was my immediate reaction, and it was a good one.  Five years ago the world was just a bit saner and my schedule hadn't precessed to its current format.  I was in my office when the telephone rang.  A friend who lived just across the Hudson river and a little bit north of the World Trade Center was on the telephone.  His astonished voice was telling me that it appeared that an aircraft had crashed into one of the towers.

"Get Away From the Window"

I told him, almost instantly.  I had no doubt that it was deliberate.  Many times prior to 9/11 I had flown south, down the New Jersey bank of the Hudson, made a semicircle around the Statue of Liberty, and then flown north along the Manhattan side.  After crossing the George Washington Bridge, I'd head up to the Armstrong Tower, hang a left, and head for home.  The WTC towers were a landmark, of course.  They were big.  You didn't fly over them.  You didn't get close to themthey would swat you out of the sky without receiving a scratch.  You certainly didn't hit one by accident.

"Get Away From the Window"

I wasn't sure if he had heard or understood the urgency in my voice.  I remember New York City before the Towers were built.  I spent a good part of my youth on the streets on which they later stood.  Cortlandt Street and its environs were nerd heaven.  Even more so than Canal Street, the electronic surplus stores in the area had the goodiesfrom WWII and the early computer and semiconductor agethat could be used to build the gadgets that I craved.  Sure, I could buy a transistor radio.  But how much sweeter to listen to one that I built myself, in a plastic case that I assembled from Plexiglas and monomethyl methacrylate.  With visible transistors!

"Get Away From the Window"

Of course I couldn't tell if he was paying attention.  It must have been an irresistible sight.  I remember reading about an aircraft crashing into the Empire State Building many years before.  A WWII bomber on a foggy night, as I remember the story.  I'm sure the fog would have obscured the drama, and the night would have produced fewer witnesses.  With the smoke and flame coming out of the Tower, it clearly wasn't a tiny aircraft that did the damage.  It wasn't immediately obvious that it was a transport aircraft.  Helicopters carry a lot of fuel; and any aircraft in the vicinity was likely to be fully fueled if it had just taken off from LaGuardia or Teterboro.

"Get Away From the Window"

The Effects of Nuclear Weapons is one of those dry, Government Printing Office publications that was available for almost nothing and was a cult classic of its day, when The Bomb was on our minds and we were under our desks.  It had only a small coterie of readers, to be sure, but I was a member, and still have my copy of the first edition.  The litany: Blast effects.  Prompt radiation.  Fallout.    How big would a terrorist weapon be?  Would they be able to detonate an air burst where it would do the most damage?  Or, even if they could, would they prefer instead a ground burst, with the neutron-activated concrete, asphalt, car parts, and human remains joining the short-lived fission product fallout covering (most likely) points east and south?  I had no idea then, I have no idea now. 

I play a stupid "what-if" from time to time.  What if I were in a tiny airplane near the Tower when the first plane hit?  Surely some were near.  The "Hudson Exclusion" is busy airspace with sightseeing helicopters and businessmen heading to and from their NJ domains.  Small aircraft can't damage big buildings, but they can distract or destroy airliners.  Would I have thought to loiter in case there were a second?  Would I have thought to play a mighty game of Pong with United Flight 175?  Or would I have headed north back up the Hudson as fast as my wings could carry me?  No point speculatingI was in my office.  I wonder how many pilots have mentally tested their mettle with that question.

"Get Away From the Window"

9/11 was the clearest of days.  There was no mist, no fog, no rain or clouds to absorb any radiation.  The window in question was about four miles from what would later be known as "Ground Zero."  Of course the damage would depend on just where the nuke exploded and how many kilotons it yielded.  If small, and behind a large, shielding building, my friend would be safe, even looking through the window.  But an air burst would blind him.  Even closing the drapes would be valuable, since they would absorb much of the energy, reducing the danger perhaps to flash-blindness.  Of course a large enough detonation would ignite the drapes, smash the windows, and possibly the house.  There wasn't anything to be done about that. 

"Get away from the window"

was the only suggestion I could offer to my friend on that morning, five years ago today.

"The Atomic Age began at exactly 5:30 Mountain War Time on the morning of July 15, 1945, on a stretch of semi-desert land about 5 airline miles from Alamogordo, New Mexico. "And just at that instance there rose from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one."  (William Laurence, The New York Times, 26 September, 1945)

Maybe I was better at playing "think like a terrorist" than they were.  Or, much more likely, they didn't have an atomic weapon to detonate while a million eyes were upon their work.  Perhaps they still don't. 


I was surprised at how easy it is to find "genuine" samples of Trinitite.  Just search on eBay, and a small bunch pop up.  Of course there's no "certificate of authenticity," but it's not hard to believe that of the large quantity formed at Trinity Site from that lone test in 1945 a few grams can still be found here and there.

Richard Factor