The Dangerous Allure of the World Trade Center

No better way to gauge the worth of a book has ever been found than the test of time, and John McPhee’s work stands up spectacularly well, I think it’s fair to say, in this passage from a book he published back in l973. It’s called The Curve of Binding Energy, and it’s about the danger of small nuclear weapons constructed by the likes of terrorists, but below is the passage that most stands out, late in the book, about McPhee and physicist Ted Taylor driving into Manhattan, and seeing the World Trade Center:

The book works on several levels: as a factual warning, as a character study, and as pure writing in the non-fiction genre. Because the passage is long, I’m going to put most of it below the fold, but I guarantee, you will not regret the time spent reading it:

Driving down from Peekskill…we found ourselves on Manhattan’s West Side Highway just at sunset and the beginning of dusk. There ahead of us several miles, and seeming to rise right out of the road, were the two towers of the World Trade Center, windows blazing with interior light and with red reflected streaks from the sunset over New Jersey. We had been heading for midtown but impulsively kept going, drawn irresistibly toward two of the tallest buildings in the world. We went down the Chambers Street ramp and parked, in a devastation of rubble, beside the Hudson River. [The buildings were still under construction at the time.] Across the water, in New Jersey, the Colgate sign, a huge neon clock as red as the sky, said 6:15. We looked up the west wall of the nearest tower. From so close, so narrow an angle, there was nothing at the top to arrest the eye, and the building seemed to be some sort of probe touching the earth from the darkness of space. "What an artifact that is!" Taylor said, and he walked to the base and paced it off.

We went inside, into a wide, uncolumned lobby. The building was standing on its glass-and-steel walls and its elevator core. Neither of us had been there before. We got into an elevator. He pressed, at random, 40. We rode upward in a silence broken only by the muffled whoosh of air and machinery and by Taylor’s described where the most effective place for a nuclear bomb would be. The car stopped, the door sprang back, and we stepped out into the reception lounge of Toyomenka America, Inc., a Japanese conglomerate of industries. No one was behind the reception desk. The area was furnished with inviting white couches and glass coffee tables. On the walls hung Japanese watercolors. We sat down on one of the couches. "The rule of thumb for a nuclear explosion is that it can vaporize its yield in mass," he said. "This building is about thirteen hundred feet high by two hundred by two hundred. Its average density is probably two pounds per cubic foot. That’s a hundred million pounds, or fifty kilotons — give or take a factor of two. Any explosion inside with a yield of, let’s say, a kiloton would vaporize everything for a few tens of feet. Everyting would be destroyed out to and including the wall. If the building were solid rock and the bomb were buried in it, the crater radius would be a hundred and fifty feet. The building’s radius is a hundred feet, and it is only a core and a shell. It would fall, I guess, in the direction in which the bomb was off-centered. It’s a little bit like cutting into a big tree…An explosion in this building would not be completely effective unless placed in the core. Something exploded out here in the office area would be just like a giant shrapnel bomb. You’d have half a fireball, and it would crater down…

We went back to the elevator, and when the car stopped for us it was half filled with Japanese, who apparently quit work later than anyone else in world trade. Thirty-eight floors we feel toward the earth in a cloud of Japanese chatter, words come off the Otis walls like neutrons off a reflector. In the middle of it all, I distinctly heard one man say a single short sentence in English. He said, "So what happened then?"

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