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Thursday, September 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Collapse of twin towers still haunting engineer whose firm did design

Seattle Times staff reporter

Jon Magnusson estimates that he spent about one-quarter of his time in the past year studying, discussing or thinking about the World Trade Center.

The Seattle-based engineering firm he chairs, Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire, helped design the World Trade Center almost four decades ago.

Although he was just a boy when plans for the Twin Towers were drawn, Magnusson is now one of the nation's top experts on tall buildings, and he found himself answering media calls minutes after the planes hit.

Yesterday, he began his day much as he did one year ago: watching replays of jets flying into buildings on his home television. They are images that have rarely left him.

In the days that followed last Sept. 11, Magnusson gave 85 interviews to reporters across the globe. He traveled to New York three times since last September, and he worked on a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) study of the World Trade Center collapse. The FEMA study, released in May, noted that "the ability of these structures to withstand such damage is noteworthy."

Magnusson has come to a simple conclusion about the ability of designers to produce a structure that could have survived a catastrophe like Sept. 11.

"We can out-build earthquakes. We can out-build windstorms. But we can't out-build military attacks. There are certain things we can't design for," he said.

Most skyscrapers are designed to withstand wind pressure of about 40 pounds per square foot. The airplanes that struck the World Trade Center hit with a force of several thousand pounds per square foot. Building a skyscraper to that specification would be financially impracticable, he said.

In the hours after the first plane hit, about 20 engineers gathered in a conference room in the firm's office to watch the catastrophe unfold. Nobody spoke, Magnusson remembers, and nobody predicted the buildings would collapse.

There has been some talk in recent months that engineers should have been part of the rescue effort, to warn firefighters of imminent danger. The FEMA report suggested that structural engineers should assist emergency personnel in future incidents.

But Magnusson said that would be a wasted effort.

"It's frustrating to hear people say a structural engineer could somehow know," he said. "We all wish someone could have known. But sending an engineer out there will not solve the problem. Nobody could have known."

Instead, Magnusson said federal authorities should concentrate on building secure cockpits, teaching pilots to depressurize planes and other ways to incapacitate hijackers.

"Trying to out-build the terrorists is the wrong thing to do," he said. "You're just wasting money."

Like millions of Americans, Magnusson said he was horrified by the tremendous loss of life in the World Trade Center. And watching a building collapse is any engineer's nightmare.

Magnusson said his only solace was that John Skilling, his friend and mentor who worked extensively on the World Trade Center, died four years before his creation was destroyed.

"I'm glad he didn't have to see that. It would have torn him apart."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com.

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