We will never know for sure exactly what structural stresses and failures caused the World Trade Center towers to collapse. However, two government reports provide slightly different explanations of the possible processes that ultimately brought the buildings to the ground. The first of these reports was authored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and completed in September 2002, while the second was done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and finished in September 2005.
Both studies blame two general events for the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. The first was the initial impact of the airplanes. This occurrence caused significant damage to the buildings' external and core columns and increased the strain on those that remained intact. The impact also dislodged the spray-on fireproofing that protected the floor trusses and the fire-resistant drywall that encased the core columns. This left the buildings' steel components vulnerable to the second critical event: the fires sparked by the airplane collisions. Each of the aircraft carried about 10,000 gallons of fuel, which probably burned off quickly, but not before igniting the contents of several floors in both buildings. These fires burned at temperatures between 400 and 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit (800 and 2,000 degrees Celsius), hot enough to weaken -- but not melt -- the towers' steel superstructure [source: FEMA]. It was a combination of the initial damage and these fires that ultimately led to the buildings' demise.
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While the two government reports came to the same general conclusions, they disagreed on some of the specifics. The FEMA report blamed the failure of the bolts connecting the floor trusses to the external columns for the collapse of the buildings. According to this theory, the floor trusses began to sag when weakened by the fire, pulling at these bolts and causing them to sheer off. The force of the collapsed floor then caused the next floor to fail, and the next, and so on in a phenomenon known as pancaking. With no lateral support, the vertical columns soon buckled, and the buildings collapsed. The NIST report also blames sagging floor trusses for the collapse, but suggests that the floors actually pulled the exterior columns inward, causing them to buckle. This brought the top section of the buildings down through the impact zone with a force too great to be stopped.
While no one will ever know exactly how the World Trade Center towers collapsed, we do know that the event changed the world forever. Explore the next page for more information on the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001.