Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cass Gilbert's 90 West Street Ablaze

One of my private rants against the photographers of the attacks of September 11, 2001, are the omissions in the record of several notable episodes and views. For instance, given a seven-hour window of opportunity, one might think somebody could have captured a high-resolution shot of the south face of Building 7 without the tight quilting of smoke we see adhering to the facade after the two towers had fallen. Implausibly, we are asked to believe that a dozen or so professionals all choose to take shots during the exact same heavy smoke conditions. It is inexplicable---barring tight control and release of the work product---that such a dominant narrative element could go unrecorded. And since no steel was saved for study from Building 7, a photograph would have gone far in the engineering studies.

Another lacuna in the record is any shot of 90 West Street on fire. That is the historic tower designed by Cass Gilbert in 1906, built of ornate masonry with a copper roof, that sat on the southern edge of the World Trade Center site. Battalion Chief John Norman said, "90 West Street would have been a big problem, would have probably been a borough call by itself during normal times." Since several of the tabloid photographers were fire junkies, I'm surprised they weren't mesmerized by the flames and clicked their shutters once or twice.

But in a sign that the record may be opening up a bit, an image of the Cass Gilbert tower on fire has entered the public record--however that is done in these modern days. This unattributed image was found on the web, but little birds ate all the breadcrumbs I'd left as my trail back to the original hosting site---so, me bad researcher.

Not only does the image give us a dramatic view of a floor fully engulfed in flames in 90 West Street, we also get a stupendous bonus prize--finally, we can orient the famous Iwo-Jima flag pole with its risen Old Glory, as shot by iconographer Thomas Franklin. I swear, I didn't think it possible given the views I was familiar with, but my skepticism has been trounced.

Of course, the backwards bend to the pole doesn't position the banner in a very stirring display. I might think amidst all the hubbub the gesture would have come across as puny---but certainly not at dusk when a search light is shined directly at it! Ouch! The light is hurting my eyes! And why is this the only image in the entire record taken with a fish-eye lens? Is it because there is absolutely no way Franklin could have captured the scene showing a view of towering WTC debris behind it?

Then there are the pictures you've seen a thousand times, but suddenly, some new, important element just pops out at you. Like in these two overview shots of West Street taken at a particular time in the morning, after the first responders arrived, and before the first collapse happened. Attributed to the New York City Police and Fire Departments, the view south down West Street must have been taken by a very, very tall man---like 30 feet, or so.

But it is in a second view, looking east down Liberty Street, which shows ambulances diagonally parked, along with the dark Impalas of the federal gendarmerie parked more willy-nilly, that my sensibilities are violated. What is that large volume of smoke doing coming out of the ground floor of the south tower? This is at odds with my understanding of the narrative. Could fires sixty or more stories up get vented somehow in a downdraft and be sucked violently out this one window? Or is this more like the physics of the blown-out elevator doors in Tower One that we are told about, but never actually see (cameramen?) That, we are asked to believe, was due to the effects of a jet fuel fire, which traveled down past two sky lobbies to explode in scores of shafts at the ground floor.

I've always hated that South Bridge in any case. It looks like its dangling at one end---or cork-screwing, like a pig's tail. I'm sorry that it was the one thing to survive. God can be so perverse that way.

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