Thornton Tomasetti’s Tom Scarangello on Clearing the Wreckage of 9/11

Starting on 9/12, Tom Scarangello and a Thornton Tomasetti team of structural and forensic engineers worked at the World Trade Center to help clear the worst wreckage in New York City’s history. This is his story.

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Thousands of stories were shared in the days, weeks, months and years following 9/11. Thousands more could never be told. 

On the day of the attacks, structural and forensic engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti was hired by the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC) to secure and manage the World Trade Center site. 

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The first task at hand was ensuring the physical safety of those who showed up on 9/12, and every day after that, until the recovery work was completed in May 2002. 

Two decades later, Tom Scarangello,  now executive chairman of Thornton Tomasetti, is telling his story — but he emphasizes it’s only one of many. 

“There were dozens and dozens of other [architecture, engineering and construction] professionals down there, and they all had similar experiences,” he said. “So many firms made incredible contributions at the site, because so many architects, engineers and contractors showed up on 9/12.” 

Scarangello was 44 years old at the time of the attacks. He grew up in the Bronx, where his uncle — spotting his talent for math and an aptitude for solving puzzles and building things as a child — steered him toward a career in engineering. Thornton Tomasetti hired Scarangello right out of school, and he’s been with the firm for 42 years. (It should be noted that his sister is one of the most recognizable names in commercial real estate: Mary Ann Tighe.)

He’s currently working with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum to document detailed, firsthand accounts from the AEC community who worked on the World Trade Center site. 

Commercial Observer: When did you start work on the World Trade Center site? 

Tom Scarangello: I got there on the morning of 9/12 with about 30 Thornton Tomasetti colleagues. Mike Burton [then-executive deputy commissioner] at the Department of Design and Construction had called Richard Tomasetti [then-chairman of Thornton Tomasetti] midday on 9/11, and they met on-site that evening to survey the situation. It was a horrific site with a lot of dangerous conditions, and they really didn’t know where to start, but they knew they needed engineering support and expertise. 

At the time we started, it was still a rescue [mission], and there was hope that we’d be able to help get around the debris and find people that were still alive. Unfortunately, after 24 hours, it became clear that wouldn’t happen. It was almost three weeks before they called off, and said it wasn’t rescue and recovery anymore — it was just recovery. But, we were working from 9/12 alongside the firemen, police and everybody else down there to figure things out.

One of the things we’re incredibly proud of is that during our nine months on the site, on one of the most dangerous work sites in the history of the United States, only one person was injured [suffering injury to their foot and leg]. If you’d told me that nobody else would be physically injured when we began on 9/12, I’d have said, “We’ll have to be really lucky.” 

Tom Scarangello
Tom Scarangello. Photo: Sasha Maslov/for Commercial Observer

Why was Thornton Tomasetti chosen to lead those efforts? 

The reason Thornton Tomasetti was chosen is because we were known to the city — and also nationally and internationally — not just as a designer of new structures, but as one of the leading forensic and emergency response engineers in the world. We had worked at other major building collapses, including the Hartford Coliseum collapse or L’Ambiance Plaza in Connecticut. 

Forensics work is very different from design work, because you come in when something has gone wrong, and there really is no playbook. You have to figure out what happened, and hopefully stabilize the site to make sure nothing else goes wrong. 

Where were you when you first heard news of the attacks? 

On the morning of 9/11, I had just dropped off my son at nursery school, and the teacher came in and said, “Don’t be upset, but a plane just hit the World Trade Center.” I personally thought it was just an accident at first. And then, a couple of minutes later, they came back in and said, “It doesn’t look like an accident.”

So, we took our son out of nursery school and I went to our office, which was right on Sixth Avenue at 19th Street with a view down to the towers. The office was filled with structural engineers by then who, at that moment, probably didn’t think the towers were going to collapse. We didn’t have the time to think about it then, although when we thought about it a little bit further — given the amount of damage and the fire — it became very clear exactly why they did collapse. But, we watched it on TV in a conference room, and we could also see it outside our window. 

I lived in Union Square at the time, and the next day, we assembled at our office and walked all the way down to the site, because there was no traffic below 14th Street at that point. 

What are your memories of arriving at the site? 

On 9/12, so many people had shown up to try to help and were milling around because  the site had yet to be organized. So, one of the first things we did was to start effectively deputizing. We wrote “safety engineer” on our hard hats and we walked around telling people where not to go. People were standing around hoping they could help out, but they could be standing under huge pieces of glass just dangling in the air. So, we were trying to make sure that people were safe.

I’ve never served in the military, but it felt like showing up in a war zone with everybody figuring out what their role and responsibility was. And it was terrible to see all the firemen and the police that were there, because they’d lost so many on that day and you knew what they must be going through.

We quickly started working with the Structural Engineering Association of New York [SEAoNY] and created groups that would pan out beyond just the immediate area, and look at which buildings outside of the main site were damaged and might be close to collapse or dangerous. The perimeter at that point was much greater [than the WTC footprint] because, when the buildings collapsed, the debris had gone pretty far. So, we started to create a new perimeter, where we could stop people from coming in and only have people in who could help with rescue and later with recovery. 

We were also busy figuring out logistics because, while we were there, from that first day onward, there were additional teams of engineers coming in and others on-site 24/7 for the following nine months. 

How did you approach the logistics of a task of that magnitude? 

We initially thought we would work in eight-hour shifts, but then we realized that it took an hour or more just to walk down to the site from Midtown, and so we decided on 12-hour shifts. Many of us slept down there. There was a public grammar school over on West End Avenue, Public School 89, and it became our headquarters. It seems funny now, but we, as fully grown men, would be sitting in these tiny kindergarten chairs, having meetings.

But, that room is where we started figuring out how to keep people safe on the site. We were organizing all the engineers that came in, making sure that we knew who was on-site, that companies had the right people there and that they were insured. We’d rotate the site on a regular basis, because sometimes people needed to try to get into a certain place to look for their brethren. We were also busy walking up and down the surrounding towers to assess damage and the chance of those buildings collapsing.

I remember the concerns about the surrounding buildings in the days following the attacks.

On the second day there, I had very spotty cell service and my wife, Roxanne, called me and said, “We heard 1 Liberty Plaza is about to collapse.” I said, “I hope not … because I’m actually on the 20th floor.” But, for a series of days, maybe even weeks after the attacks, there were concerns about the surrounding buildings. 

So, in addition to helping those on the site get to where they had to get to safely, we — along with SEAoNY — went in, spanned out, and surveyed all the adjacent buildings so we could essentially tick them off a list, building by building. 

There was four feet of paper on the rooftops of some of the lower buildings, because all the paper that had been in the towers floated down. And one of the concerns we had early on was that, if it had rained, the paper would have gotten soaked and the roofs on those buildings could have collapsed. So, literally, people went with shovels to take all the paper off the roofs and just dump it over the side of the roof, so the roof wouldn’t give out. Luckily, it didn’t rain for a week, and — as many will tell you — 9/11 was one of the most beautiful, blue sky days I can remember in my whole life. 

Little by little, we were able to reduce the perimeter of the site, so that people could at least come back in and get their belongings, or whatever, and know that there was a secure area. And, within less than a week, we had the true 9/11 footprint.

How long were you ultimately working on the site?

It took nine months to get to the point where everybody walked off the site and it was ready to be whatever the world envisioned it needed to be. If you’d asked me on 9/12, I would have guessed a lot longer than nine months. There were pieces of steel sticking in the side of buildings 40 stories in the air, and there were buildings that had to be taken down piece by piece in a way in which nobody would get hurt. 

It could have taken years and years to get there if everybody hadn’t rallied, not just the engineering community, but the whole AEC community. CEOs and presidents of companies showed up; you couldn’t send out an engineer with a couple of years of experience, because you were walking into something that really had no playbook. 

I was 44 and pretty experienced at that point, but almost all the people we had there were 30 years and older and some of the titans of our industry, like Richard Tomasetti, Irwin Cantor and George Tamaro. 

What do you remember about the slurry wall [an underground perimeter that stopped the entry of river water into the World Trade Center site] concerns? 

Had the foundation walls around the Twin Towers failed, water would have flooded the site all the way up to Canal Street. This is gallows humor, but I look back now, and we saw it as such an unimaginable concept that we were sitting around saying, “Well, we just can’t let that happen.” 

I felt like the scene in “Ghostbusters”, where they talked about what happens when you cross the streams. We just couldn’t let it happen, because the city would have been flooded.

I imagine staying busy with the recovery efforts helped somewhat during that time.  

Yes, there was always something to do. Occasionally, you’d be standing somewhere and look around, and for a second, you couldn’t believe where you were. But there was just a lot of activity. I thought about it more when I left the site, because when I was on the site, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about anything other than keeping myself safe and keeping the team safe. And I think everybody felt better about it when they were there, because at least you felt like we were doing something.

Did you ever fear for your own safety? 

You’d have to have been crazy not to understand that you were in a very dangerous place. But I think we did a very good job of warning each other of dangers. I’m dating myself here, but there was a cop show called “Hill Street Blues”, and the cops would have a meeting in the morning and the last thing said was: “Let’s be careful out there.” And in every meeting we had, whoever ran the meeting would end with, “OK, be careful out there.” 

Everyone knew what the dangers were, but they also knew people were watching their backs and we never went out by ourselves — everybody went out in pairs. So, you always had somebody to say, “Hey Tom, watch where you’re going.”

What were your initial thoughts on what should become of the site? 

Given the scale of the site, I always thought it would eventually be rebuilt on. As a lifelong New Yorker, I felt like New York had been remade and rebuilt so many times, and no matter what became of the site, it was hard to imagine anybody ever forgetting what happened there. 

We’re now in our new offices on 120 Broadway, and I’ve been spending more and more time there since we moved in January. But, the most time I spent there my whole life was during 9/11. It’s strange now walking around the site, but I think the city has done an amazing job and struck the right balance. You have the museum, the reflection pools and the memorial, but the city goes on around it. 

I think by creating a place where people still live and work, you honor the victims more, because you’re passing those areas all the time, and you can’t forget. I think, this way, we get to honor them in our day-to-day activities.

How did 9/11 alter your business? 

There was a huge amount of lessons learned, in terms of how we design and create safer buildings. We used to be almost a purely structural engineering and forensics firm, and now we have a whole bunch of other practices, such as a facade practice — our protective design services — and a security service, because when we think about buildings now, we think of them much more holistically.

To be clear, those buildings did everything they were designed to do. People disagree on some of the aspects of the design and why the buildings collapsed the way they did. But, if you talk to 99 percent of the engineering professionals out there, they’ll agree that those buildings performed remarkably well under the circumstances. 

But it’s impacted our business in really determining what the causes were [of the buildings falling], because there are still people out there who have crazy conspiracy theories, and we have to make sure that the truth is known. 

Thornton Tomasetti and other engineers have shown — based on science and physics — exactly why the buildings fell. Are there disagreements and little nuances that only engineers would care about? Yes. 

But, the big picture is: Those planes were filled with fuel that set the contents of the buildings on fire, and that fire and the damage done by the plane impacts is what took down the buildings, and what took down 7 World Trade. Those buildings were designed for plane impact, but they weren’t designed imagining a plane fully loaded with fuel that would set contents on fire. And all of this has been definitively modeled and documented. 

Tower Seven collapsed later because its fire just kept burning, and nobody wanted to send firemen after what had happened. If you let any fire burn long enough on a steel building, the building will collapse.

So, since then, what we’ve tried to do is build smarter and safer, but also make sure that people understand what really happened that day — because the heroic stories of the first responders and the people who worked there are what should survive. 

Twenty years later, what stays with you today? 

How many people showed up on 9/12. Everybody knew it was dangerous, and during the first couple of days, there were probably thousands of people who walked down there with whatever skill set they had, wanting to help out. New Yorkers showed up with coffee and food, just desperate to help. And there was such unity. 

You look at our country and the world 20 years later, and how divisive we are and ask, “Boy, how do we get that unity back?” Hopefully, it doesn’t take a horrific event to unite us the way we were united back then. 

This is a silly thing, but I’m a huge Yankees fan and the Yankees were playing [the Arizona Diamondbacks] in the World Series then. I can say that was the first, and probably the only, time in my lifetime that the vast majority of the people of the country were rooting for the Yankees — because how could you not be rooting for New York City? We were incredibly united, both in grief, but also in resilience and in the mindset of, “We’re going to get through this.

Then, one of the things I still find puzzling to this day is that, we, as a city, haven’t decided to make September 11 an annual, citywide holiday for people to take off or give back, because it was something that impacted our city, but also the world. I never wake up on September 12 and realize, “I missed September 11.” I never will. 

Cathy Cunningham can be reached at ccunningham@commercialobserver.com.