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The Events of 11 September

The many roles of technology

5 min read

In this special web report, the editors of IEEE Spectrum, from offices only 4 km northeast of the World Trade Center, look at some of the stories behind the headlines of the events of 11 September.

We consider the long-anticipated use of weapons of mass destruction versus the actual use of commercial aircraft as bombs; the New York City Emergency Operations Center, helplessly located right in the World Trade Center; the daunting task of bringing the stock exchanges back on line only six days after the loss to personnel and facilities; broadcast television and radio transmission, also centralized at ground zero; and lastly, why U.S. anti-aircraft capabilities didn’t do what weaponless passengers did above western Pennsylvania–bring down any of the terrorist-controlled planes.


Surveillance Technology: Tracking Terrorists and Protecting Public Places: An IEEE Spectrum/ New York Academy of Sciences Press Briefing
[31 October 2001] We convened this press briefing because the technical, economic, political issues surrounding surveillance technologies are very complicated, and they're coming on faster than lawmakers, and certainly faster than the nontechnical public, can understand how they should be used. One of the places where surveillance technology issues will be discussed is in the press, and we hope this briefing will be informative for the press in attendance. Our speakers-who come to surveillance technology-related issues from different sides of the problem-will address questions of utility-what these technologies are and how they work (or don't work)-and the issues surrounding appropriate use of these technologies in public places.

For additional material on terrorism and the events of 11 September, see the following Spectrum Online articles:


After the Fall
[19 September 2001] Technology was everywhere in the terrorist attacks on the U. S. Pentagon and the World Trade Center on 11 September. As well, the technology leadership of the world, international and far-flung, so widely represented among the membership of the IEEE, has been hard hit.


Time for Hard Questions
By Elizabeth A. Bretz
[19 September 2001] When the second plane hit, those visions became an appalling, terrorizing nightmare. But by the time the third plane hit the Pentagon, nearly an hour after the first hit, hard questions were being asked: how could this have happened, why hadn’t air traffic controllers and the military done something?

Loss of People, Not Data or Equipment, Felt Most Keenly
By Jean Kumagai
[19 September 2001] After a terrorist attack left much of lower Manhattan uninhabitable and shrouded in smoke and dust, it was hard to imagine that the New York Stock Exchange would re-open just six days later. Yet at 9:30 am on 17 September, rescue workers who’d been pulled from the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers rang the opening bell, signaling the start of trading.

To Respond to Terror, Think Like a Terrorist
By Harry Goldstein
[19 September 2001] NYC’s Emergency Operations Center was the most advanced emergency municipal HQ in the U.S. But no one anticipated the possibility of two jet aircraft crashing into the building, giant fuel bombs that reduced the World Trade Center complex, including the EOC, to a smoking pile of rubble on the day it was needed most.

A New World of Terror
By Glenn Zorpette
[19 September 2001] Analysts expected that technologically sophisticated weapons of mass destruction would get terrorists to the next level in their abominable craft. Hardly any foresaw that meticulous planning and ruthlessness could exploit an air security system gone terribly lax, turning airliners into a destructive force as lethal as a small atomic bomb.

High-tech Safeguards for Rescuers at World Trade Center
By Willie Jones
[28 September 2001] Electrotechnology adapted for rescue and recovery efforts is helping to save lives by giving searchers the lay of the land, telling them where its safe to tread, and in several instances, entering places where a human presence would be unwise of simply impossible.

Privacy May Be Another Casualty of Attacks
By Steven Cherry
[28 September 2001] The U.S. Congress is considering a number of ways to increase the powers of law enforcement. Some measures would greatly increase on-line surveillance, others would redefine many computer-related crimes, such as writing a computer virus, as terrorist acts.

Falling Down
By Harry Goldstein
[1 October 2001] What can engineers learn about the collapse of the Twin Towers from clues buried in the rubble and captured in photos of the attack? IEEE Spectrum interviews principal investigator W. Gene Corley about the ongoing investigation and what it might mean for skyscrapers of the future.

Face-Recognition Technology
By Willie D. Jones
[11 October 2001] The first system in a U.S. airport is being installed now. It checks the images from surveillance camera footage against criminal mugshots.

Predicting Hijackings
By Willie D. Jones
[11 October 2001] Software to identify potential hijackers by data mining reservation records is in development. The software will combine one company's algorithms for identifying patterns in data with another firm's data-driven forecasting methods

Snapshots-By the Numbers
[15 October 2001] A statistical look at he human toll resulting from the tragedies of 11 September, physical facts about the Twin Towers, and the status of the technology companies with offices in the World Trade Center

Thyroid-Blocking Potassium Iodide in Growing Demand
By David P. Amber
[18 October 2001] One slightly bizarre, if predictable, effect of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center has been a sharp increase in consumer demand for potassium iodide. This rather obscure compound blocks update by the thyroid gland of radioactive iodine, one of the principal radioactive materials released in a severe nuclear accident involving breach of the reactor core and containment

Bush and Congress Converge on Antiterrorist Legislation
By Sanyin Siang
[18 October 2001] Bills passed by the U.S. Senate and House of representatives are sure to be merged soon in a law that President George W. Bush will sign, giving law enforcement and intelligence forces much more authority to perform surveillance and to work together.

On the Air
By Samuel K. Moore
[26 October 2001] The 110-meter mast atop 1 World Trade Center was a broadcast hub for the whole New York city area, supporting television and FM radio transmissions. Bringing broadcast coverage back to normal will be a long and difficult process

Security, Fear and National ID Cards
By Steven M. Cherry
[9 November 2001] In the first weeks after 11 September, many public figures called for the creation of a national identity card. But ID cards are only as good as the systems supporting them. Spectrum reports on its test of new security procedures based on photo ID cards.

Also on Spectrum Online:

Biological Warfare Canaries
By Christopher Aston
Once a year a select group of scientists and engineers gathers at Dugway Proving Ground, a salt flat in the Utah desert 65 km from the nearest traffic light. They are there by invitation of the U.S. Defense Department's Joint Program Office for Biological Defense to field-test their systems for detecting biological warfare agents.

A list of worthwhile links related to the events of 11 September would be as long as the WTC towers were tall. Here are just a few.

Donations: Two of the many organizations worthy of our time and money are the Red Cross, https://www.redcross.org, and Helping.org. We particularly commend our readers’ attention to the latter’s links to the New York Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund and the New York State Fraternal Order of Police WTC Fund.

A useful discussion of the physics of the WTC collapse is on the BBC’s site, https://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_1550000/1550326.stm. Readers wishing to understand the construction and collapse of the WTC towers can also view an explanatory animation at https://www.elpais.es/multimedia/internacional/ estruc.html.

The 1993 WTC bombing was discussed in the pages of IEEE Spectrum by John F. King, a New Jersey technical writer. The article, "World Trade Center blast triggers design debates" [May 1993, pp. 84-85], reviewed planning missteps made obvious by the blast, and measures taken to speed evacuation of the towers in the event of a future attack.

USA Today has an animation of the flight paths of all four planes at https://www.usatoday.com/graphics/news/gra/gflightpath2/frame.htm. Those wishing to understand how airline black boxes work can visit https://www.howstuffworks.com/black-box.htm.

The Web is a great source of information, but sorting fact from fiction has to be bootstrapped by the Web itself. A nice site for debunking hoaxes, bad quotes, and so on related to the events of 11 September can be found at https://purportal.com/special/9-11/.

The Web makes it much easier to gather information and perspective from all sides. Here are some URLs to resources otherwise not easily available: the Afghan News Network;  the Afghan Info Center, the Lemar-Aaftab Afghan Magazine. There are, of course, many others, such as the University of Texas’s Middle East Network Information Center https://link.lanic.utexas.edu/menic/.

It’s been noted that the world was attacked on 11 September, not just America. An American "thank-you" gallery of images that summarizes the solidarity of world sentiment can be found at https://manson.exodus.net/thankyou/ (click on "Gallery").

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