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9/11 Debris: An Investigation of Ground Zero

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World Trade Center before and after
Credit: Space Imaging, Ground Zero shot by IKONOS satellite 9/15/01

Note: This is an edited excerpt from a larger work of the same title. Download the full PDF now 60.5MB


This book began as a mathematical effort to reconcile the total weight of the seven WTC buildings – the entire World Trade Center complex including basements – with the total weight of debris reportedly removed from Ground Zero. The basic premise was that if I could get accurate numbers for both the buildings and their post-9/11 debris, I could simply subtract debris weight from structure weight to learn how much building material was pulverized into the dust and ash clouds that turned day into night. How much was incinerated?

Were those dust clouds not more dense than they would have been in gravity-driven collapses? Were the debris piles consistent with fires and structural failures? Or did the answers to these questions suggest planned demolition and therefore “inside job?”

While researching, I discovered the math had already been done. (Gregory Urich, “Analysis of the Mass and Potential Energy of World Trade Center Tower 1,” Journal of 9/11 Studies, 2007.) The WTC wasn’t quite as massive as the reports boasted, I learned. As far as the before and after comparison went, everything seemed to add up on paper there. But the stark images and disturbing witness testimony of extreme ruin compelled me to find more sources. So I uncovered, collected, and compared as many of these various numbers as possible. To put it simply, the numbers by themselves didn’t begin to sum  things up.

The respected construction trade magazine Engineering News-Record said the WTC “site concrete was largely pulverized into fine dust….” (Nadine M. Post and Debra K. Rubin, “Debris Mountain Starts to Shrink,” enr.com [cached], 10/1/2001.) The dust in some places measured “several inches thick on the ground.” (Joe Dunne, First Deputy Police Commissioner in Dennis Smith’s Report from Ground Zero: The Story of the Rescue Efforts at the World Trade Center, Viking/Penguin, New York, 2002, p. 63.) Watch the WTC Tower 1 cloud form in this collapse video.  Although “the 9-11 skeptics are apparently unable to offer any quantitative evidence that the observed pulverization of concrete in the collapse of the Twin Towers required pre-planted explosives,” the contents of the WTC dust alone have provided compelling evidence. (quoting Dr. Frank R. Greening, “The Pulverization of Concrete in WTC 1 During the Collapse Events of 9-11 ,” Nov. 2006.) See the chapter “Dust.

I should point out that the final official report on the collapse of the towers did not generate enough “quantitative evidence” to produce a working model demonstrating either WTC tower’s total destruction (see NIST FAQ 10.). Moreover, critical arguments strongly refute what little modeling was done for the supposed collapse initiations. See the section below titled “Investigations.” Some said WTC 1 suffered core failure; some said perimeter column failure. Since it didn’t make sense that the core would fail, NIST chose perimeter.

Elements of the dust and other “conspiracy theorists’” evidence refuting the official theories have always struggled against the easy, logical assumption that the hijacked jets – seen repeatedly on television colliding with the towers – made them fall (only in concert with the jet fuel-fed fire and dislodged fireproofing, officials said). The apparent structural failures seemed to initiate at the points of airplane impact, no less. Obvious, right?

“…now you see the images and it all seems so cut-and-dried, it all seems so utterly clear. Plane hits, plane hits, building falls down, building falls down, but it wasn’t that way at all on the day. We were immersed in confusion… almost suffocated by chaos.” – ABC News anchor on 9/11, Peter Jennings, when interviewed later by the Smithsonian Institution

Now more than ten years later, that confusion can be confronted with hindsight (not 20/20). Researching the events of that day has tended to dig up loads of garbage, as if one had dug too deep at the landfill where the WTC debris now rests. No doubt, the information has been sifted more patiently for evidence.

Thesis: More important than guaranteeing complete “collapse” of both aging, iconic buildings – and WTC Building 7 – was the requirement of pulverization and incineration. Virtually unidentifiable rubble (and bodies) enabled an amazingly fast “cleanup” of the site.

The destruction of evidence and investigative failures at the World Trade Center ruins are just as critical a subject as are the quantities and qualities of the physical evidence often referred to as “debris.” By looking at “Ground Zero” from a few different angles (after opening our eyes) it should be easy to see there was some destructive force in addition to gravity – that the World Trade Center was demolished as the world watched. If you disagree, read yet.

I invite you to watch “9/11 Debris: An Investigation of Ground Zero,” parts one and two, to see and hear about Ground Zero. Part one validates the investigation with compiled reports, images and testimony to the extreme destruction.


“When you look at where the towers used to stand, there is surprisingly so little rubble. Where did all the rubble go?” (ABC News anchor Peter Jennings to on-scene reporter George Stephanopoulos 9/12/2001 at 12:44 p.m. Watch TV archive clip) So begins part two. Mainstream media reports attempt to explain the missing debris. Was it the 120 dumptrucks Mayor Giuliani mentioned on NBC at 9:52 a.m. 9/12? Was it the vast 75-foot deep basement that UK Channel 4 described as “hundreds of feet deep?” (“9/11: Ground Zero Underworld” 2007) Or was it the inches-deep dust that blanketed a city of people unconscious to the reality of the nightmare?


See Molten Steel & Extreme Temperatures at WTC to read an exhaustive collection of material describing the debris field.

The paragraphs below are mostly full of impersonal details, behind which a thousand stories of grief and hope seem to be forgotten. Ground Zero for the first weeks was a city within a city, as a Nov. 4, 2001 CBS segment described it. Donations poured into New York from all over the continent, as did volunteers. See “The Heart of Steel” (2006) for this side of the story.

The incredible compassion dedicated to searching the rubble for survivors was quickly converted into manpower for debris removal, that “indefatigably focused activity that began with the simple goal of rescue but evolved into a therapeutic tool for resolution and acceptance.” (Jeannette Catsoulis, in a 2005 review of Lou Angeli’s “Answering the Call: Ground Zero’s Volunteers“). Even after hope of finding people faded, the shock and sadness were alleviated by the will to help, however that was possible.

The businesspeople who razed the World Trade Center seized upon that opportunity and took advantage. What for many seemed like an exemplary act of American solidarity and cooperation was at the same time a part of the down side of patriotism– an unquestioning following of leaders and popular opinion. (Unfortunately, our leaders did not want an investigation into the events of September 11th. See “9/11 Press for Truth,” specifically 15:54 – 25:46.) “United we stand” became the national theme, set to an omnipresent backdrop of the American flag. Nevermind the fact that we were so united in the act of watching television.

Some Available Images

The sixteen plus acres of Ground Zero (17 including WTC 7) were a crime scene where little investigation took place (See for starters 911research.wtc7.net and http://www.nytimes.com/2002/…pse-inquiry-house.html). However, much documentation did happen. This is despite the ban on photography, which wasn’t officially announced by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani until Tuesday September 25th. (See http://www.boston.com/news…photo_ban.htm or view a photo of one of the posted signs on the site.)

Importantly, people managed to make photographs and videotapes during the first hours and days. Images garnered by government employees include those of FEMA photographers Andrea Booher, whose earliest photographs are dated 9/13 [NOTE: In a personal communication by email, Andrea told me she arrived on 9/12 and began shooting on 9/13.] and Michael Rieger, whose photos are dated 9/18 and afterward; FEMA videographers Kurt Sonnenfeld (see also YouTube to hear his allegations of government malfeasance on 9/11) and Jim Chestnutt, whose tapes have been either unavailable or anonymous (see some FEMA images acquired by by FOIA in 2010 [mirror]); some aerial video by the U.S. Coast Guard on 9/16; one spectacular aerial image from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA (9,372 × 9,372 pixels), only on 9/23 (See this image cropped with a map overlay); also some shots credited to the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) starting 9/15.

The 9/11 TV archive is an indispensable resource. An extended length version of some television network video (example) has recently been acquired by the International Center for 9/11 Studies (In late 2010, thanks to James Gourley and Justin Keogh) though a Freedom of Information Act request of NIST, who amassed hundreds of hours of video for their investigation. However, you’ll notice amateur and personal cameras provided some of the closest, early looks (listed below). ABC News anchor on 9/11, Peter Jennings states this simple fact, pointing out the nature of the technological world we live in today, not so much the reality of blockades. For that, hear ABC reporter George Stephanopoulos mention the armed guards, part of the military presence there for people’s safety, mostly.

Ground Zero on 9/11
Photos by Steve McCurry (click image to see another – from the International Center for 9/11 Studies at 911datasets.org, who released it as part of number 16 in their series)

Videographers include Lou Angeli (see also YouTube), William Cirone (playlist here), Tim Cothren, Kaspar Galli, Etienne Sauret, Matt Siegel, Steve Spak, Kevin Sutavee…. Surely there are more. Photographers of “the pile” include the FDNY (see also Int’l Center for 9/11 Studies NIST FOIA, 911datasets.org release 33, strictly copyright protected), NYPD Aviation (9/11: ex. 2, ex. 3, ex. 4, ex. 5, ex. 6, and another which clarified a misleading photo used by NIST from the same roll of film; NYPD Aviation 9/13: ex. 1, ex. 2, ex. 3, & ex. 4), George Miller of the NYC Transit Authority, Mike Davis, David Hammond, Eric Feferberg (among others named in the International Center for 9/11 Studies 2010 NIST FOIA, specifically 911datasets.org release 29 [NYPD source is release 4 or 8]), and more famous photos from Gary Marlon Suson (see also YouTube), James Nachtwey, Aris Economopoulos, Doug Kanter, and allegedly Frank Silecchia. New York City cop and photographer John Botte was granted access by commissioner (now convicted felon) Bernard Kerik. Botte’s monochrome photos (example) were published in Aftermath: Unseen 9/11 Photos by a New York City Cop (2006).

There are many photos of Ground Zero, but few that were put to use. Aerial photography (see also here) wasn’t able to see through the persistent smoke until September 15, with LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging – see video clip from “World Trade Center: Rise and Fall of an American Icon” [History, 2002] or read some at http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0209/maps.html). That first LIDAR image (source, credit EarthData International) wasn’t seen by authorities until Sept. 17. This delay for access to the images at the Emergency Mapping and Data Center (EMDC) thereafter was next-day/morning (“Engineering and Organizational Issues Related to The World Trade Center Terrorist Attack Volume 3, Emergency Response in the Wake of the World Trade Center Attack: The Remote Sensing Perspective,” by Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, ImageCat, Inc., for The Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), June, 2002, p. 20). With LIDAR a laser fired from above was able to map topography accurate to 6 inches in height (History, 2002). Depending on equipment, altitude, and speed of the aircraft, the resolution – or distance between points measured by the laser – varied between 6 and 15 feet for EarthData, and a bit more for NOAA (Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, Ibid., p. 18). Flyovers were done regularly (daily in September, with only a few exceptions — see the imaging timeline [together with more comprehensive details in Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, Ibid.]). The main purpose for this and other high tech imaging was to create maps to help search & rescue experts, firefighters, police, ironworkers and others climbing in the pile. With the help of Dr. Sean Ahearn, director of the Center for the Analysis and Research of Spatial Information (CARSI), it was also possible to chart areas of possible collapse (Maddalena Romano, “Charting Ground Zero exhibit opens in Soho,” GeoNews, Volume 15, number 3, February 2002). Finally, the images provided more general information, like changes in the volume of debris. (More on that shortly.)

The Sunday Sept. 23 New York Times ran an article titled “From 5,000 Feet Up, Mapping Terrain for Ground Zero Workers,” which featured a large LIDAR image taken Sept. 19. Compare to another taken Sept. 23 (source, credit NOAA/U.S. Army JPSD) and another, high resolution image dated 9/17 (credit EarthData, source: 911datasets.org Nov. 17, 2010 NYC OEM MAPS FOIL). Much more on mapping Ground Zero can be found at The George Washington University website. Notice the importance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who in the quote below attest to the importance of LIDAR.

WTC aerial view, LIDAR September 17, 2001

Image credit EarthData, LIDAR September 17, 2001 from the OEM/EMDC FOIA at 911datasets.org

GIS maps are created from aerial photos taken daily at the World Trade Center site. A light detection and ranging system takes photos that scan the area to pinpoint exact elevations.

– Justine Barati, “Corps Assists FEMA and New York City with Mapping Capabilities,” Yankee Engineer World Trade Center Edition, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District. Dec., 2001. p. 9.

Of course more conventional photography was used. Compare aerial images for these days: 9/13, 9/15, 9/17, 9/19, 9/22, 9/26, 9/30, and 10/3 (source: 911datasets.org Nov. 17, 2010 NYC OEM MAPS FOIL, credit EarthData). It’s a shame black and white was used by EarthData (See Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, Ibid., Section 3.1.3. “Problems”).

Additionally, aerial thermal imagery helped keep rescue workers safe from hot or even molten metal and underground fire (see GeoNews,” Vol. 15, Number 1, October 2001). Images and data from the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) recorded Sept. 16 and later can be found at the USGS website (see also this USGS page). Underground fires burned for more than 3 months, despite the USGS claims that hotspots were nearly eliminated by Sept. 23. (image source) See, for example, “Metal of Honor: The Ironworkers of 9/11” by Rachel Maguire, Spike TV, 2006. Additional examples and much more description of the rubble can be found below. AVIRIS provided the most detailed thermal data (including temperature), but other instruments were also used. For instance, see an image from the “tripod mounted Raytheon Nightsight Palm IR 250 thermal camera, carried aboard a Navajo Chieftain aircraft.” (Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, Ibid., p. 21.) These images could be combined with 3-D LIDAR (Ibid., p. 32.), but not in the detail provided by AVIRIS. Sadly, “[a]lthough AVIRIS temperature readings were released to the FDNY, this key information was not received by any of the mapping centers.” (Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, Ibid., p. 39. Also see image below.) [Note there was a mapping center for Urban Search and Rescue at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in midtown, which focused on Ground Zero alone. The EMDC at Pier 92 {after being moved from the NY Police Academy Sept. 14, after 2 days} worked on the entire area. Third, there was FEMA working at Pier 90. {Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, Ibid., p. 6.}]

AVIRIS Sept. 16 thermal image
source – Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, Ibid.

AVIRIS also had the ability to measure and help track airborne pollutants, primarily the carcinogen asbestos. See the USGS PDF document “USGS Environmental Studies of the World Trade Center Area, New York City, after September 11, 2001.” Unfortunately, there were “considerable time delays” in getting resulting info. “These compositional results were not released until the 27th September, by which time the risk posed to response crews by airborne contaminants had abated.” (Charles K. Huyck and Beverley J. Adams, Ibid., p. 26.) This important issue is discussed below in the section “Dust.”

Let’s move on to the usefulness of high tech imaging as it relates to the original purposes of this paper. A significant amount of attention was given to measuring the debris mass and volume. The number of tons of debris removed was often mentioned in reports about Ground Zero. You’ll be reading some of these reports soon.

The volume of debris was calculated through GIS analysis. This helped the city determine how much debris was removed. Images were compared daily to determine changes in the site.

– Vince Elias, et. al., “New York District in the Red Zone,” The New York District Times, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NY District. Vol. 26, No. 5, Fall, 2001. p. 8.

G.I.S. stands for Geographic Information Systems (see for example “Mapping the Hazards to Keep Rescuers Safe,” New York Times, Oct. 4, 2001). The “systems” constituted software, hardware, and people. Quickly visit New York City’s makeshift OEM headquarters (that replaced WTC 7, destroyed on 9/11) in a Sept. 19 NBC News report. Notice the GIS on the wall behind Director Richard Sheirer (at 0:27).

Authorities at FEMA (and the New York City Office of Emergency Management, who was already working at Pier 92 on the Hudson River in preparation for a bioterrorism exercise planned for 9/12/2001) wanted to know how long the recovery operation would take, and about how much it would cost. Since the NYC OEM headquarters at WTC Building 7 had “collapsed” 9/11 afternoon, Pier 92 conveniently became headquarters. A FEMA Disaster Field Office was established at the adjacent Pier 90 (source – note Pier 91 is on the East River). Debris management experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived (Allen Morse and others) and coordinated with both FEMA and city officials (source – USACE). Resulting reports that detailed the calculated debris mass were published and quoted often during the “cleanup.” (Those physically and emotionally involved preferred the term “recovery.”)

Download the full PDF now (60.5MB)


Introduction 5

Available Images 8

Cheap and Fast 15





– Second Plane Impact Error 30



MAP: “Moving Debris by Barge,” New York Times 43


– WTC Debris Weight; Truckloads; Barges 47; 52; 57


Bodies 68



Survivors 86


– 9 Seconds; Floor 22 96; 120

Black Boxes Somewhere 130

Airplane Debris 133

– FEMA’s Fuselage Fib; The Engines 147; 153

Specific Items Recovered 164



Dust 188





Appendix 1: Video timed text captions with sources 211

Appendix 2: Images mentioned 218

Appendix 3: Excerpt from Kevin R. Ryan, Another Nineteen 233

Appendix 4: Changes to previous editions 240

Written by Matt

January 3, 2015 at 1:02 pm