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U.S. News
Twin Towers engineer still trying to cope

Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Leslie Robertson, lead structural engineer for the World Trade Center, knows there's no rational explanation for what he feels.

Buildings, after all, aren't supposed to withstand 767s slamming into them, loaded with jet fuel. As a matter of physics, what took place on Sept. 11 in those sickening moments when the Trade Center towers collapsed was simply inevitable.

Even so, the man getting ready to address engineering graduates at Penn State University is wracked by unsettled feelings "that are not in the vocabulary of a structural engineer, or maybe anyone for that matter."

"I don't have any guilt feelings about what was done in the design," said Robertson, 73. "I think the work our people did was fantastic."

Yet even though many thousands of people escaped because the skyscrapers withstood -- at least for an hour or so -- more force than they were designed to, there is still what Robertson calls "the other side of it."

It's what wakes him up at night and distracts him during the day. Sometimes it takes the form of a question: "What could you have done better?"

Try to imagine, Robertson asked in an interview last week, how the designer of the Titanic must have felt. "He didn't steer it into the iceberg," Robertson said.

His voice trails off in the middle of an explanation.

"I've not dealt with it well," he said. "I'm just a human being."

On campuses here and across the nation, the Class of 2002 will hear speeches from Hollywood stars, world leaders and others whose names are far more recognizable than Robertson's. Bill Cosby will speak at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown; former Gov. Tom Ridge, now director of homeland security, will be at Carnegie Mellon University; Queen Rania of Jordan at La Roche College; and Fred Rodgers at Chatham College, for example.

But few will offer a more poignant reminder of the world's current state than he will on May 10 when Robertson steps to the microphone at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center to deliver remarks to the engineering college's graduates.

It's not that he will dwell on the subject. Robertson, whose work has gone into high profile buildings around the world, is still working on various drafts of his speech, but he said he already had decided there was no point in focusing heavily on what happened to the twin towers.

He's more likely to give advice on why engineering students with advanced degrees have a competitive edge in the job market today.

Still, he recognizes that everything he has to say that day may be dwarfed by one credential: His key role in a 110-story structure that once symbolized America's invincibility and now illustrates just the opposite.

"Engineering students at universities aren't great students of history, and it's kind of not their way to look back to see the past," he said. "They will not be so very familiar with the work I have done unless they are required to delve into a particular building because of a project requirement."

By contrast, images from Sept. 11 of a choking cloud of dust, fleeing office workers and desperate rescuers will still be fresh in the audience members' minds.

Robertson, a native of Manhattan Beach, Calif., embodies the themes of perseverance and renewal that often find their way into commencement speeches.

"I was a high school dropout and later a university dropout," he said.

But in the Navy, where he served as an electronic technician's mate, Robertson found new confidence in his talents. He finished a degree at the University of California at Berkeley and went on to build a distinguished career.

Over the years, he has been responsible for the structural design of hundreds of buildings worldwide, including the USX Tower in Pittsburgh, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, Puerta de Europa in Madrid and the Continental Arena in the Meadowlands, East Rutherford, N.J.; plus museums in Berlin; Portland, Maine.; Seattle; and the Miho Museum Bridge in Japan.

Among his current projects is the Shanghai World Financial Center, which will be the world's tallest building when finished.

But few projects over the years have had the cachet of the World Trade Center, built in the 1960s and for a time known as including the tallest building in the world. It was, said Robertson, "the definitive project."

"It was an absolutely totally new kind of office building," he said. "It put more real estate higher up in the air than any other building."

And on Sept. 11, all of it came crumbling down.

The twin towers' design split the load between tightly spaced columns situated at the building's exterior and a more limited number of weightier beams in the middle. The design is believed to have helped prevent it from quickly toppling over, but eventually steel structures in both towers that were superheated by the raging fire weakened and the Trade Center collapsed.

A little more than 2,800 people are believed to have perished in the disaster. An estimated 10,000 to 14,000 people were believed to have been in the buildings on the day of the attacks, according to an analysis by USA Today, meaning at least 70 percent of the occupants got out alive.

Robertson was having dinner in Hong Kong when he learned in a cell phone call that a plane had hit one of the towers. At first he assumed it might be a small craft, but soon he was back in his hotel room watching the unthinkable -- a double attack by a pair of jetliners commandeered by terrorists.

"We had an office there. We had people in the building. We had people scheduled to be out on the north face of the north tower that morning," he said. "I had friends there."

"I could envision tens of thousands of people dying," Robertson said. "I was totally devastated."

In the months since, from his high-rise in Manhattan not far from the devastation, Robertson has dealt as best as he can with the aftermath and is better able to talk about it now than before. He said the lowered death count brings some consolation, but not relief.

"Do the numbers make a difference to the way you feel?"

* A schedule and list of speakers for commencement exercises at area colleges and universities is in The Region, Page C-19

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