Immeasurable, incomprehensible by
(152 Stories)

Prompted By 9/11

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Bill & Veronique, NYC, 9/11

From 1966 to 1972, heavy machinery lifted the World Trade Center to the sky. The effort elevated 987,500 tons of steel, concrete, glass, copper wiring, aluminum and galvanized steel conduit, air-conditioning and elevator machinery, fire retardant, furniture, tile and flooring to a height of 400 meters per tower. Raising and stacking this vertical factory required the extraction of an immeasurable amalgam of dead animals and vegetation from beneath earth’s surface. In death, these fossils slept, tacitly storing energy from the sun and water, the fluid of life. Once abducted, the transformed creatures provided the fuel needed to load the World Trade center with the gravitational energy of 280 tons of high explosive per tower.

Like matter, gravitational energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

During the four years of construction, diesel and gasoline engines and electric motors, fueled primarily through fossil-fuel combustion, their torque increased by the leverage of pulleys and cranes, these machines and the people who ran them wrestled with gravity to raise steel and concrete from ground level to 1362 and 1368 feet into the New York skyline. The structural design and engineering of this complex stacked, fastened, and braced the vertical mass of these two buildings — 493,750 tons per building — against the inexorable pull of the earth’s gravitational system.

And so they stood for 28 years and five months, the North Tower and the South Tower, one million tons of gravitational defiance, twin metropoli of commerce rising from the corner of Liberty and Church Streets in downtown Manhattan.

On September 11, 2001, young men board planes and kill the crews of two Boeing 767s weighing 283,600 pounds each. They commandeer the controls of the aircraft and fly them into the twin towers of the World Trade center. The first airplane hits the North Tower at a speed of 430 miles per hour. The second airplane hits the South Tower at a speed of 500 miles per hour. The combined mass and speed of the projectiles creates an energy powerful enough to sever between 70 and 90 percent of both towers’ vertical support and transportation systems.

A fire ensues in each of the two stricken towers. Approximately twenty thousand gallons of jet fuel ignites and burns, weakening the structural steel. As the beams are subjected to 1000-degree heat, they begin to bulge, rendering the floors unsupportable.

The weight of the floors above presses down, high up on the North Tower, lower down on the South Tower. The differences in unsupported weight cause the South structure to fail first. The collapse takes approximately 10 seconds. Twenty-eight minutes later, the North Tower collapses, plunging into its own basement in approximately 15 seconds. The impacts register at 3.5 on the Richter Scale.


Like matter, gravitational energy can neither be created nor destroyed. The gravitational energy of an object equals the energy required to raise that object to a height. That same gravitational energy is released by letting the object fall.

In ten to fifteen seconds, the collapse of the towers released a combined energy of one million tons of vertical lift expended on the structure twenty-eight years earlier, energy generated by four years of fossil-fuel combustion in engines that wind and unwind pulleys and cables carrying concrete and steel upwards via cranes, winches, suction pumps, and elevators.


The light of the sun, the life-bearing qualities of water, the died-back flora and fauna from prehistory, once living, forever dead, layered, compressed, sleeping for 10 million years, their tarry bodies extracted and refined, the design and fabrication of machinery to lift one million tons of concrete and steel and hold it against gravity, the devastation of its 10-second release, foot-pounds, cubic meters, mass and velocity… these things I can understand.

The human terror, the courage, the fear, the wonder, the decision to jump or burn, the loss of innocent life, the turning point in history that we knew was inevitable, how that turning point has manifested itself over the sixteen patterned and chaotic years, what we saw, what we knew, what we learned, what has left us mystified, the loss of two friends, the trauma of all who witnessed, the people, places and events that began to stream from the collapsing towers like molten steel, the place of commerce and industry in the spectrum of geologic history and our newly minted anthropocene era… these things I find immeasurable, incomprehensible.

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Twenty years later…

Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Chaz, this is stunning. You use facts we didn’t know to draw out emotions we could barely touch, buried deep within. A brilliant piece of writing. What a way to start my day…thank you so much for this gift.

  2. Thanks, Betsy. I was hoping I might evoke a response from deeper levels with facts and physics.

  3. John Zussman says:

    As Betsy observed, simply stunning. Like the engineering feat you describe, your story uses numbers and scientific principles to build a massive edifice—only to crumble in the human devastation of your last paragraph. Crushing.

  4. Suzy says:

    Have to echo Betsy and John. Stunning is exactly the right word for this story. All the physics and geology and engineering gives us information we may not have known before, but in the end we are left with the immeasurable and incomprehensible result of that awful day. Your last paragraph is perfect!

  5. Patricia says:

    So stunning that I couldn’t even comment in the moment. Re-reading, I’m still as moved by this as I was staring at the water rushing down the negative space of the memorial fountain at the site, all of it so incomprehensible. Charles, please post this somewhere else too.

  6. Thanks, Patricia. And thanks for the encouragement. I may read this piece at an upcoming lit event here in LA. I’m glad you reminded me of it! Without anticipating the present, I think my incomprehension has continued nonstop into the Trump era. No matter how strenuously I try to understand, I just don’t get it.

    Thank you, Patti for partnering with John on Retrospect. It’s been a profound experiment that caressed, pummeled, and eased some wonderful writing into the cosmos! Bravo to you guys!

  7. Thanx as always Charles for your fascinating take on a Retro prompt, your encyclopedic knowledge and your fine writing, albeit this time on such an horrific topic. Heaven help us.

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