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9/11 probers skipped key forensic tests

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Paul Conant
Saturday, Dec 06, 2008

Federal scientists ruled out controlled demolitions of three World Trade Center towers but declined to perform routine tests on soil and debris for traces of explosives or incendiaries, a review of National Institute of Standards and Technology publications shows.

The agency, which spent $16 million on its inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, collapses, said such tests weren’t needed because computer simulations and other considerations had shown that controlled demolitions were improbable. In an August 2006 fact sheet, the agency frankly admits that it did not test trade center steel for the residue of explosives or the incendiaries thermite and thermate. The agency’s decision to omit routine tests contrasts with its assertion that “some 200 technical experts — including about 85 career NIST experts and 125 leading experts from the private sector and academia — reviewed tens of thousands of documents, interviewed more than 1,000 people, reviewed 7,000 segments of video footage and 7,000 photographs, analyzed 236 pieces of steel from the wreckage, performed laboratory tests and sophisticated computer simulations of the sequence of events that occurred from the moment the aircraft struck the towers until they began to collapse.”

Concerning the probe of the collapse of the two main towers, the fact sheet says, “Video evidence also showed unambiguously that the collapse progressed from the top to the bottom, and there was no evidence (collected by NIST, or by the New York Police Department, the Port Authority Police Department or the Fire Department of New York) of any blast explosions in the region below the impact and fire floors…” The agency, which failed to note that the FBI was in control of the trade center crime scene and which sent a bomb squad to the site, says nothing about the FBI or other federal investigative unit confirming that no explosives or incendiary residues were found, nor does it cite specific local police reports to that effect.


In fact, in its numerous public pronouncements between 2004 and 2008, NIST cites no forensic evidence gathered by criminal investigators, even though Congress had granted the agency subpoena power. For example, the final report on the collapse of the 47-story Building 7 includes the New York City fire and police departments among “cooperating organizations” that assisted its inquiry but says nothing of the FBI or other federal investigative agency.

A computer search of FBI and Justice Department documents and press releases failed to turn up any record of the FBI’s findings concerning tests for explosives at Ground Zero. The FBI and another Justice Department unit, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, routinely do forensic testing of crime scenes where explosives or incendiaries are a possibility.

In an Aug. 26, 2008, technical briefing concerning the fall of Building 7, S. Shyam Sunder, who led NIST’s investigation of the collapses, did not answer directly a question about residue tests, but said that a scientist, Jonathan Barnett, who had found a peculiar residue on steel shards recovered from Tower 1 and Building 7, had told the BBC that his team’s findings showed nothing sinister.

  • A d v e r t i s e m e n t

Sunder was talking about Appendix C of the initial Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) study of the collapses in which three Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) professors called the “severe corrosion and subsequent erosion” of the debris a “very unusual event.” They said of the residue on the steel that “no clear explanation of the source of the sulfur has been identified.”



A 2002 WPI press release said the professors, who were hoping NIST would back further research, were also startled by the Swiss-cheese appearance of the shards, having expected bending but not holes. The agency said that indications and reports of molten steel were irrelevant, even though the fires were never hot enough to have melted steel, because the debris piles might have acted as ovens to cook the metal. No simulations were done to verify this idea.

In fact, the only NIST data on the strangely scarred metal seems to be Sunder’s statement. Richard D. Sisson Jr., a mechanical engineering professor at WPI who is a co-author of Appendix C, told this reporter in an email that the NIST had not financed further research that the trio had hoped to do on the shards. Sisson declined to repeat what he and Barnett told the BBC’s “Conspiracy Files” reporter. When this writer checked last week the July 6 episode had been removed from the BBC web site, though an episode concerning NIST’s latest theory of Building 7’s collapse was available.

Barnett has left his post as a WPI fire science professor and could not be reached. No response was received to an email query of a third author of Appendix C, Ronald R. Biederman, another WPI mechanical engineering professor.

The public is left to find the “research” confirming no foul play related to the shards in a webcast comment by Sunder, which refers to a BBC broadcast that has been taken offline and which the scientists involved can’t or won’t discuss.


In response to a question from Steven E. Jones, a physicist who strongly challenges the NIST scenarios, Sunder said the agency hadn’t checked to see whether dust gathered from Ground Zero contained red flecks because the agency was concerned only with credible hypotheses. Jones is an advocate of the idea that the incendiary thermate was used to slice through critical steel components to initiate collapses. Another critic, Kevin R. Ryan, fired from his job as a laboratory director for challenging government claims, commented that Sunder “pretended” not to be aware of a powerful spray-on thermate known as super-thermate or nano-thermate that is intended for military uses. The agency said in 2006 that the idea of thermite or the related thermate was dismissed because it would have required thousands of pounds of the substance to fell the main towers. Ryan, ousted from his job as a lab director for an arm of Underwriters Laboratories, has written that a number of NIST probers “had expert knowledge of nano-thermite.”

An agency fact sheet on Building 7 asserts that the thermite theory is improbable because “it is unlikely that 100 pounds of thermite, or more, could have been carried into WTC 7 and placed around columns without being detected, either prior to Sept. 11 or during the day.” That is, the agency justifies not running thermite residue tests on the a priori assumption that one or more security units was not compromised or complicit.

The fact sheet adds that tests for thermite or thermate would not necessarily have been conclusive, since some of the constituent chemicals are found in some of the building materials. Specifically, the sheet notes, sulfur is found in the gypsum wallboard used in many offices, but the sheet doesn’t mention that sulfur is a component of many explosives and of thermate. NIST does not address the issue of the accuracy of various tests for trace chemicals, such as mass spectrometry, used by forensic scientists. Generally, scientists make evaluations based on proportions, such as parts per billion. If proportions are inconsistent with building materials, then other causes would be suspected.

The FEMA experts wrote in their 2003 report that the best scenario they could devise for Building 7’s collapse had only a “low probability” of occurrence. In 2005, Sunder told reporters that the agency’s “working hypothesis” was that Building 7 fell because of fuel fires coupled with structural weakening caused by falling debris from a main tower. NIST retracted that idea in its final draft of the Building 7 report, concluded in August.


Instead, the agency came up with a novel conjecture about a fluke collapse — conceding that fire had never before triggered a skyscraper’s total collapse — but declined to perform a fire test of the components involved to see whether “thermal expansion” could indeed have caused the critical structural damage. Physical fire tests were performed for the twin towers study and the results, when plugged into the computer simulations, were ambiguous (see How did the twin towers fall? Questions remain via the link above). A fire test would have taken less than a day, as opposed to the eight months of running time that was required for the various computer simulations of Building 7’s collapse.

As was the case in the twin towers study, NIST built no scale models to see whether its conjecture would work for Building 7.

“I proposed a scale model approach to NIST in the beginning,” James G. Quintere, a former NIST division chief, told this reporter. “Not only was it rejected but they refused to support our student project on it, and we did it anyway…”

Quintere, a University of Maryland fire science professor, said the steel debris was key to the forensics work but NIST “did not know what to do with the steel they got,” adding: “They were told by me to do a grain analysis to get the temperature, and claimed ignorance until the eleventh hour.”

Quintere doubts that the main towers were felled by controlled demolition but still challenges NIST’s professionalism (see link above).

The agency concluded that Building 7 collapsed due to something no experts had anticipated and that had never before triggered such a collapse: the thermal expansion of a floor assembly that pushed out and buckled column 79, which triggered a catastrophic cascade of failures.

However, the agency admits that there is no visible evidence to validate its hypothesis. According to a supplementary report (NCSTAR 1-9 V2, p25), there was a “lack of visual evidence with which to validate the complex coupling of the fire and thermostructural models” used in the computer simulations.


Conceding that Building 7’s fires weren’t nearly hot enough to melt or warp columns and girders, the agency conjectured that the expansion of a floor assembly occurred unevenly, so that column 79 had more thermal force applied to it than columns on the other side of the floor. A physical fire test could however have confirmed whether such a result was likely. The computer simulations make numerous assumptions and approximations that might not be reflected in the real world. Also, mathematicians say that as the number of simulation variables increases, the accuracy of prediction generally falls. In fact, the agency’s main Building 7 report (p40) notes that once collapse simulation was under way, uncertainties and random processes led to decreasing precision over time.

Interestingly, an early theory reported in the press of how the main towers collapsed was that thermal expansion of floor slabs had buckled perimeter columns. The NIST did not use this theory in its 2005 report on the main towers.

The agency said that people on a news video did not turn around and look just as Building 7 began to fall, implying they had heard no explosion. Yet, if a nine-pound charge had severed Column 79, a loud report should have issued from the building, the agency said. However, the agency noted, no windows seem to have been blown out by such an explosion in the building (which had no basement). Critics say thermate would have not been overly noisy, and the agency gave no consideration for the possibility of a hastily erected blast wall.


NIST withheld the seismic data, which was due out in 2005, until August 2008. That data, provided by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, show that roughly 10 seconds before Building 7’s collapse, seismic stations recorded a magnitude 0.6 event, followed by a higher magnitude quake for the main collapse. The agency speculated that an interior portion of Building 7 had fallen and set off the 0.6-level quake.

The seismic data record a number of 0.6 magnitude quakes associated with quarry blasts that occurred that day, indicating that a 0.6 event is consistent with explosives. Yet, the news video on nearby West Street shows that the seismic event — which had the energy of a quarry explosion — failed to reach the ears of those on camera.

Eric Lipton of the New York Times described a testy Aug. 21, 2008, press briefing in which Sunder was peppered with questions by apparently knowledgeable people who were skeptical of NIST claims. The agency’s webcam of that briefing was taken offline, though a transcript of Sunder’s opening statement is still available.

NIST had 16 videos, nine considered important, for the Building 7 investigation but the agency limits web access to some still frames and one unidentified video of the collapse, whose forensics value is unclear, posted by the agency’s public affairs department.

NIST takes no notice of the fact that both CNN and the BBC had advance knowledge of Building 7’s collapse. Yet the agency scenario for collapse hypothesizes a fluke event the like of which has never before occurred in a skyscraper, as the agency admits. The agency also says that there is no visible evidence to validate its scenario, indicating there is no apparent reason anyone would have had to warn of the building’s collapse about an hour ahead of time. This conclusion is reinforced by the agency’s description of its photographic evidence, which contains no hint that a collapse was impending an hour or 20 minutes in advance.

Yet a YouTube video shows CNN anchor Aaron Brown reporting at about 4:14 p.m. that “we are getting information now that one of the other buildings, Building 7, in the World Trade Center complex is on fire and has either collapsed or is collapsing.”

Similarly, BBC reporter Jane Standley is shown on another YouTube video reporting Building 7’s collapse — which took less than 10 seconds — 20 minutes before it actually fell at 5:20 p.m. The BBC said it could not verify the video’s authenticity, the original having been lost.

NIST noted that Con Edison shut off all power to the substation at the base of Building 7 54 minutes before collapse. On the other hand, the agency reported that a decision had been made to forgo fighting the building’s fires at 2:30 p.m. The power cut-off occurred 19 minutes after Brown prematurely announced the building’s collapse.

It seems plausible that fire or police officials tipped the press that Building 7 was “coming down” and that on-air reporters misconstrued the information. In both videos, an apparently sturdy Building 7 is visible behind the telecasters.

One can imagine a scenario in which either President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney gave the OK to demolish the building, which housed the CIA’s New York station and other federal offices, in order to safeguard national security secrets, but that a decision was made to conceal the truth lest the public become wary of the official story of how the main towers fell.

However, as Znewz1 has previously reported, the inconsistencies and evasions in NIST’s report on the main towers also bring up disturbing questions.


The FBI’s handling of the anthrax investigation has spurred spirited debate in Congress and among experts, who either doubt that Bruce Ivins was a culprit, or, if he was, that he could have acted alone.

According to researcher Graeme Sephton, the FBI withheld its forensics findings concerning the explosion that felled TWA Flight 800 over Long Island Sound during naval maneuvers in 1996. The bureau failed to share with the National Transportation Safety Board knowledge of the fact that traces of a chemical associated with an explosive had been detected on plane wreckage, Sephton, who has fought long battles for the release of federal records, found. It appeared that only when the finding leaked to the press did the NTSB became aware of the residue, Sephton said. The residue was attributed to a spill of a chemical used in the training of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Sephton also discovered that the FBI had withheld from the medical examiner a group of pellets, recovered from Flight 800 corpses, that he said are consistent with warheads found in some missiles.

This article was posted: Saturday, December 6, 2008 at 4:51 am

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