On the tenth anniversary of 9/11

On that awfully-memorable day in  2001:

  • Coordinated suicide attacks involving hijacked passenger jets were launched against the World Trade Center in New York; against the Pentagon in Washington, DC; and an attack thwarted by passengers on a jet flying above Pennsylvania.
  • Nearly 3,000 people died in this mass murder (including 67 Britons).
  • They comprised people of more than 90 different nationalities.
  • Over 6,200 people were injured.
  • 24 people are still officially missing.

Even though the terror of that day involved death and destruction in multiple locations in the USA, it is the shocking images of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on TV screens as they burned and then collapsed – as well as those awful scenes of people jumping from the towers to exchange an uncertain and agonizing death for one of certainty if terrifying in its approach – that is the indelible memory for many people including me.

A decade on, those burning towers are indeed a memory for many. In place of destruction, new skyscrapers are being built and a memorial and museum have been constructed, part of which opens to victims’ families in a ceremony today and to the public on September 12. The memorial features two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools, each about an acre in size, set within the footprints of the original twin towers – as shown in the artist’s impression – with the names of every identified person who died in 2001 (and in the terrorist bombing of the WTC in 1993) engraved in bronze around the two pools.

I’ve written a concise memorial post in this blog every September 11 for the past four years. Nothing major, just a brief note with a photo and the bullet points above to mark the anniversary of a tragedy. I’ve often wondered how different things might have been had communication infrastructures like modern cellular networks and mobile broadband and tools like smartphones, Facebook and Twitter been as well-developed and pervasive then as they are today.

One of the most compelling speculations that I’ve read on that was written a few days ago by Peter Stringer who believes that had 9/11 happened in 2011, the tragedy would have been drastically different on many fronts:

Technology has changed quite a bit in the 10 years since the 9/11 attacks, and social media would have made that day and its aftermath very different had it existed in 2001.

In September of 2001, text messaging was basically non-existent in the United States, and the smart phone (remember the term “PDA”?) was in its infancy. In fact, the cell phone itself had yet to deeply penetrate American life the way it would over the next few years. But even that fateful day, as I left work in the early afternoon as everyone tried to make sense of the morning’s events, placing phone call was nearly impossible. Connecting to the cellular network was extremely difficult in the hours following the tragedy, and even if you could connect, you’d get busy signals, or misdirected calls.

He talks of being unable to reach his roommate, a United Airlines flight attendant, by phone and not knowing whether she was alive or dead until he got home some hours later to find her there:

[…] Had it been 2011, she’d have likely posted on her Facebook page that she wasn’t on the plane, giving relief to many of us who couldn’t reach her for hours. She could have sent a mass text to her friends and family. It would have saved many of us several hours of fearing the worst. To this day, I haven’t forgotten the feeling of opening the apartment door and seeing her on the couch.

Stringer adds:

[…] Reports say that occupants of the South Tower were initially told by building security to stay put in their offices, and that the issue was contained. But if those victims posted status and photos to Facebook describing the North Tower scene, as word spread that a commercial airliner had struck the tower, and friends and family had commented on their posts, possibly telling them to leave the building, perhaps more people may have left the South Tower in time to survive the second impact. It’s all speculation, obviously, but indecision paralyzed many people on 9/11. Perhaps social influence from loved ones could have mobilized more people to ignore building security’s initial instructions and leave the South Tower earlier.

But none of that was in place in  2001.

Neither were the means to identify everyone who was killed that day. Just read this report in New Scientist on September 7 about the massive DNA effort to name 1,121 unknown dead of 9/11:

In a private room at Ground Zero lie the unidentified remains of people killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC). More than 21,800 body parts were recovered from the site – mostly skin and bone fragments – but many were too damaged to extract the DNA that would have helped identify who the victims were. Just 1632 of the estimated 2753 people killed in the attacks have been formally identified. The latest was just last month: Ernest James, who was 40 years old.

Forensic scientists faced an unprecedented challenge. People had been caught up in 1.6 million tonnes of concrete, glass and steel. Fires had burned throughout the recovery operation, and the water that cooled the rubble degraded biological material still further.

[…] To construct a DNA profile, short strands of DNA called primers latch onto the target DNA and are used to make multiple copies of specific chunks of DNA. But when target DNA is heavily damaged, these primers sometimes fail to stick. As a result of the WTC collapse, efforts to create smaller primers that can stick to shorter target regions of DNA were stepped up, says [Mechthild] Prinz [of the New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which is leading the work to identify the victims]. The result is a toolkit called MiniFiler.

Investigators also needed better ways of extracting DNA from the tiny fragments of bone collected from Ground Zero, which led to the development of new enzymes and reagents to break down bone’s crystal structure. Such techniques are now being used to help identify remains from the battlefield, as well as from crime scenes and disasters worldwide.

Always remember.

Other reading/viewing:

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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