As the reported death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Ladin hopefully brings some closure to those who lost family and friends in the collapse of the World Trade Center almost ten years ago, conspiracy theories about the events of those days have begun to resurface. These theories range from the plausible (as in, "did the Bush Administration allow the attacks to happen?") to the ludicrous (God allowed "the enemies of America to give us...what we deserve," as the late unlamented Rev. Jerry Falwell opined).
This writer is somewhat agnostic on the subject. There were a lot of odd events that day. Cheney's recall of Air Force fighters that had been scrambled in response to the airliners' unusual movements was one. The fact that it would have taken a pilot of uncommon skill to hit those buildings while flying a large aircraft at over 500 MPH is another issue that has drawn comment. There is also the still unexplained collapse of Building No. 7 some eight hours later (which was never hit and was located several hundred yards away).
Here is what hardly anyone talks about, however.
The World Trade Center was full of asbestos insulation. During the latter part of the 1960s as the Twin Towers were being constructed, late asbestos disease researcher Dr. Irving Selikoff was working at Manhattan's Mount Sinai Kettering Cancer Center. He recalled seeing asbestos material "falling like snow" from the construction site. Today, thousands of people who were there or living downwind from the World Trade Center continue to suffer from respiratory problems. At least one first responder contracted mesothelioma and died within five years. This disease usually takes decades to kill a victim.
That's how concentrated the asbestos was in those buildings.
According to some estimates, the Twin Towers contained 5000 tons of asbestos materials. As long ago as the mid-1990s, the New York Port Authority was looking at an asbestos abatement bill of as much as $1 billion dollars – representing well over 12 times the buildings' original cost. When the buildings' insurers, Affiliated FM, refused to cover the asbestos removal/abatement costs and won their subsequent lawsuit over the the matter, the Port Authority was left with some untenable choices. The outdated buildings could not be demolished because of the asbestos; for the same reason, they could not be remodeled and updated in any cost-effective manner. The only other option was to slowly dismantle the Towers a piece at a time – the cost of which would have run into several billions of dollars.
How convenient that real estate developer Larry Silverstein was willing to take over the buildings – in late July of 2001, only weeks before the attacks. He signed a 99-year lease with the Port Authority – then proceeded to take out several insurance policies on the buildings. (He was originally outbid by a competitor, Vornado Real Estate Trust – but this bid was withdrawn when the Port Authority refused to reduce the terms of the lease.)
Interestingly, Silverstein was also the builder of Building No. 7.
As of 2007, Silverstein had received in excess of $4.6 billion from his insurers. Not a bad return on a $14 million investment, eh?
Several "911 Conspiracy" websites state that Silverstein specifically insured the buildings against terrorist attacks. This, by itself, means little; as the lessee, he would have been required to take out insurance on the property, it was not difficult in the pre-911 days to add a rider that would have covered such a contingency. After all, according to the actuarial tables used by insurance companies, a terrorist attack is a very remote possibility. However, considering earlier events such the first terrorist attack on the WTC in 1993 and the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995, it would have been a smart thing to do.
Still, considering the expense of asbestos removal, which Silverstein must surely have known about when he signed the lease – as well as the fact that he now no longer faces that expense and in fact has increased his net worth substantially as a result of the attacks – it all seems just a little too convenient.
Bagli, Charles. "As Trade Center Talks Stumble, No. 2 Bidder Gets Another Chance." New York Times, 20 March 2001.
Bowker, Michael. Deadly Deception (New York: Touchstone, 2003)
Levitt, David M. "Silverstein, Insurers Reach $2 Billion WTC Settlement (Update5)." Bloomberg, 23 May 2007.