21 Aug 2008 / Firefighter Articles
By Earl Emerson:
30 year veteran Seattle Fire Department
Author of Vertical Burn, Into the Inferno, Pyro, Firetrap, and numerous other fire novels.
Along with millions of others, I watched the events of 9/11 unfold with disbelief and horror. I was home with my wife when the first tower collapsed. She turned to me and asked if a collapse was an eventuality that I as a veteran firefighter would have expected. I told her it was not only unexpected, but startling. What was even more startling was to watch both towers crumble into dust, and later, tower number 7, also go down at free fall speed, collapsing basically into it’s own footprint. Over the years I’d seen a number of buildings collapse due to fire, all wooden structures, but none collapsed at free fall speed. How much more resistance would a steel‑framed building provide?
I had just finished writing a novel in which a conflagration burned unchecked in Seattle’s tallest skyscraper, the 78‑story Columbia Tower, and because of my research, I knew for a fact that no steel‑framed building had ever collapsed due to fire, no matter how long that fire burned. In my novel the remnants of Seattle’s tallest building had ended up in a severe tilt. Nothing in my research indicated there was reason to go any further.
There was a lot going on after 9/11. The news stories continued to pile up while the country gradually pieced together what happened that day, or what we thought happened. In early 2002 Vertical Burn was published and I did a two‑week author’s tour for Ballantine Books. Every day I talked to crowds who were eager for the opportunity to discuss 9/11 with a working firefighter. The most frequent comment was, “Those New York firefighters were so brave. Going into those buildings when they knew they were going to fall down.” My reply: “Of course they were brave. But they weren’t idiots. There was one simple reason none of them believed the buildings were going to collapse: no steel‑framed building had ever collapsed due to fire. Ever. They didn’t going into those buildings thinking they were headed for certain death. They went in to evacuate people and to put the fires out.”