Sandia LabNews

At a time of crisis, a message to all Sandians

By Labs President and Director C. Paul Robinson

Editor’s Note: The Lab News invited Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Robinson to share his personal thoughts about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon with employees, retirees, and other Lab News readers. Here is what he wrote.

C. Paul Robinson

It was nothing short of heart stopping on Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, with our eyes already glued to the TV, our minds wondering how it could have happened that a plane would collide with one of the World Trade Center towers. Suddenly it happened again. The next observation was so clear, so immediate, that it would allow our minds no time to summon any alternative explanation or doubt. We witnessed with unspeakable horror — watching on live television — as a large plane, immediately recognizable as a passenger jet, was intentionally flown directly into the second World Trade Tower, penetrating its middle with a huge explosion of flames.

For me the memories were particularly stark and painful. From late 1985 until early 1988, I sat in the southwest corner of the 93rd floor of Tower Two. Every day since the tragedy the faces flash through my mind of all the people who were likely there that morning — what has been their fate?

Our company, EBASCO (Electric Bond and Share Co., but today a division of Raytheon), had offices from the 77th floor through the 93rd floor, yet each floor seemed enormous. WTC II was an enchanting place. Elevators as big as your bedroom would whisk crowds of people from the ground level to the 78th floor "Sky Lobby" in less than a minute where we would transfer to one of many banks of regular-size elevators ("locals") that served seven particular floors, as well as the 78th. The concept of sky lobbies and local elevators was an award-winning breakthrough in design for skyscrapers.

Without that idea it would have been impossible to have an economic real estate proposition in buildings that tall (110 stories above ground), since almost all of the interior space would have been taken up by elevators. Similarly, without that concept, no one would have wanted to work in the upper reaches because the elevator rides would have been endless.

Residing in the twin towers had a cachet all its own. Businessmen and women from all over the world identified immediately with the World Trade Center. They knew where you worked, and they all were anxious to visit you. The view was spectacular! Small aircraft constantly flew by, lower than my windows. You could see everything from there — most impressively, the Statue of Liberty out in the water off the Jersey shore. It was always extremely quiet up there. During the Fourth of July celebration coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, my family spent the day with me on the 93rd floor, and, as she looked down toward Battery Park, my daughter asked, "Why do they have the gravel in all of those colors?" I enjoyed taunting her: "Watch carefully and you’ll see the ‘gravel’ moving." "The gravel" was people, viewed from so high up, packed ever so closely all around the building as they waited for the tall ships and the fireworks display.

The distinction and the enchantment are no more. Who could have predicted that it would have ended like this? My staff (in the Advanced Technology Sector) performed a study, while I was there, to estimate the lifetime of the building. The strength of the building was the stainless steel "cage" that formed the outer superstructure of the building. Once you were above the lower floors, all the windows were exactly the same size, set to fill the space between the welded stainless steel girders that stretched all the way from top to bottom. Interestingly, we concluded that the lifetime would be limited by the corresponding lifetime of the cofferdam at the base to keep the foundation dry. To remain stable against the wind loads, the base rocks had been transported from far out on Long Island to get the right strength and dryness. Were the supporting base to be flooded, the torques created by the winds would cause the building to be toppled.

Some wondered whether it might meet its end by a different catastrophe — destruction by a nuclear explosion. The World Trade Towers enjoyed the reputation as the Number One Threat Site for phoned-in threats of "Improvised Nuclear Devices." As a result, your NEST team colleagues (Nuclear Emergency Search Team) all too often learned more about the building than they ever wanted to know. Each case was a false alarm. But how strange that these two great buildings — truly icons of America’s technology, ingenuity, and riches — would be brought down by a handful of terrorists, beginning their destruction by boarding airplanes carrying only small pocket knives and box-cutters.

Now the towers are gone, and with them, many thousands of lives also taken from us as well. It pains me to write the terms "many thousands." How can anyone comprehend the depth and breadth of even one of those lives — the loved one of spouses, families, and friends, with myriad aspirations and hopes — suddenly gone.

Within minutes of the gruesome and tragic attacks in New York an identical tactic ripped a giant wound into the side of the Pentagon in our nation’s capital. The web of life is so strange. Five weeks earlier, I had met in a windowless conference room in the portion of the building now gone. The same "flood of faces flashing before my eyes" takes place for those who occupied those spaces as well. Did any of them make it out? Could it be, hope beyond hope, that some had gone to meetings elsewhere? One man in particular had a child with a dangerous heart condition. Is he still alive to care for that son?

But when we lie down at night and try to collect our thoughts, who can ever prevent the imaginings from flooding our minds of what it must have been like for those doomed passengers on each of those commercial flights. Here, too, the similarities are all too stark. My life has been a series of early morning flights, still feeling a bit groggy as you find your seat on the aircraft. What must it have been like, to be so rudely awakened by the fear of a hijacking and its uncertainties — a fear that lasted right up to those terrifying final instants of their lives as the horrendous truth registered in their minds.

And with all of the deaths — in Washington, in New York, and with those who perished in the airplane that took a sharp plunge to the ground outside Pittsburgh — our nation faces a great crisis.

Who will now rise to avenge their deaths? Who will create the means of preventing or blunting such attacks in the future? Who will devise the new means of protecting our air travel systems and restoring our "open and trusting" ways of life? Who will design the buildings of the future to still be just as beautiful as those we lost, but prove even more protective of the lives inside? Further, who will step forward to "wage peace" by grappling with the fundamental problems that divide mankind and succeed in securing a lasting peace with freedom for all? These tasks are not ours alone, but they indeed are our challenges, just as surely as there is any truth in our belief that science and engineering have an enormous power to make the world a better place. This week the trumpet has sounded the call for "exceptional service" louder than at any time in our lives. Let us answer the call.