On Demolishing Walls

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Almost three decades have passed since the Lockerbie disaster and we are still a long way from discovering what actually happened that dark December night, never mind who was responsible for the atrocity in the first place. Time itself is proving the greatest handicap as many of the individuals involved in the case have since died and we have to resign ourselves that we may never know the true version of events and ensure justice is carried out for the victims and their families, which will be little consolation to the likes of Dr Jim Swire who has campaigned relentlessly for a new independent investigation, but to little avail. In an interview some years ago, Dr Swire descried the “wall of silence” in the government and media whenever he tried raising the issue – a practice that has become increasingly fashionable in the intervening years.

A week after my 40th birthday I was working in St Albans for the NHS when news began to break of a tragedy in America. Two commercial airplanes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York and hundreds of people were trapped at the top of the skyscrapers above the impact sites. At lunchtime, we were told that all clinics had been cancelled for the rest of the day and I headed back home to Birmingham and listened to the developing situation on the car radio. Like most people throughout the world I suppose, I spent the next 24 hours after I arrived, glued to the television set, not quite believing what my eyes were telling me. It seemed absolutely impossible that two enormous buildings could collapse so comprehensively when it appeared that the fires that had engulfed the skyscrapers following the impact had largely burned out. Yet collapse they did – at what seemed an incredible rate.

It is worth remembering that in 2001, the Internet was in its infancy. There was no Facebook; no YouTube and no live news sites. Although media coverage was extensive for many months afterwards, most of the focus was on the personal tragedies and the political developments as the USA geared up for retaliation. We were left in little doubt who the perpetrators were – nineteen Arab fundamentalists instructed by Osama Bin Laden – whose guilt was unquestionable following the 9/11 Commission Report a few years later. The case was simple; four planes were hijacked in mid-air, two were flown into WTC 1&2 in New York, one into the Pentagon and the other into a field near Shanksville PA, after passengers overpowered the hijackers in a courageous fight to the death.

In Manhattan, fires from the kerosene aircraft fuel weakened the steel structure of the buildings and caused the top section of the towers to fall onto the building below, where it caused a gravity-driven collapse, pulverising the entire structure into pile of dust and twisted metal with the loss of over three thousand lives. The destruction of each building took less than twelve seconds and it was the manner in which the towers fell that transfixed this individual, perhaps to the point where I failed to register anything else that day. Like the destruction of another New York skyscraper later that afternoon. At 5.20pm EDT, World Trade Center 7 also collapsed from fires caused by falling debris after the towers fell.

It seemed irrelevant at the time. No one was killed as the building had been cleared hours before. It just fitted into the pattern that day – damage from the airplane crashes caused fires, which weakened the building structures causing them to collapse. It was the only explanation offered at the time – and one that was subsequently confirmed by the 9/11 Commission Report and the NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) investigations some years later. It is a position that has been steadfastly adopted by every US administration and its allies ever since.

September 11th 2001 became the pretext for a “war on terror” that is still being exercised today – sixteen years later. The official explanation of what actually happened that fateful day does not, however, bear close scrutiny.

Modern hi-rise buildings don’t collapse from fires thankfully. That is not to say they are ‘safe’ places to be in an emergency – as Grenfell so tragically illustrated recently. But it is worth noting that the London building did not collapse, even after an intensive fire that raged for over 16 hours. Neither did the Torch skyscraper in Dubai, which caught fire for the second time just last week. Of course, neither building sustained an airplane crash – but then again neither did WTC 7.

NIST is the US government agency responsible for investigations following major structural failures in buildings and up until the 9/11 atrocity, enjoyed an exemplary reputation for diligence and accuracy. However its conclusions into the failures of the three Manhattan skyscrapers are incomprehensible.

On the twin towers, NIST claims that a weakening of the connecting floor trusses from the kerosene fires resulted in the top sections of both buildings becoming unstable causing them to crash down onto the top of the structure below. This gravity-driven collapse then pulverised the remaining buildings into a pile of dust to the point where only a few sections of the outer walls at concourse level remained standing – at most a couple of hundred feet.

Whilst this seemed plausible on first reading, the explanation for WTC 7 did not. NIST claimed that fires from office furniture had substantially weakened just one support column (of 58) and when this failed at 5.20pm, the entire building then collapsed. However, at a press conference following publication of their report, NIST admitted that they really weren’t quite sure how WTC 7 had collapsed in the way it did, but they were sticking to their story regardless.

In time, when the details of the Pentagon and Shankville incidents were released, even more doubts surfaced about the official explanation. We are asked to accept that both aircraft mostly vaporised after crashing with only a few fragments of fuselage recoverable from both sites. No passengers were identified at either site – not even through DNA analysis – as they too vaporised on impact.

If we are to believe the official position that a passenger aircraft can fly at 560mph a few feet above the ground whilst approaching one of the most secure buildings in the world, knock down five lamp-posts with its wings en route and can still manage to crash a neat twenty foot hole through reinforced walls, then I guess it’s fairly safe to assume than none of the passengers would survive the collision. But parts of them would – enough to conduct DNA analysis for identification – only in this instance, it appears not.

The same with Shankville, where Flight 93, immortalised by Holywood, crashed into a field before reaching its intended target. Here too, the aircraft and passengers were vaporised, leaving only a smoking crater and a handful of fuselage fragments for investigators to look at and scratch their heads.

Why is this impossible?

In every other aircraft tragedy, crash investigators and recue personnel have always managed to recover substantial parts of the aircraft – and passengers. Following Lockerie, much of Pan Am 103 was recovered over a huge radius in the Scottish Borders and painstakingly reconstructed for forensic examination in an aircraft hanger in England. Part of a timer circuit in the bomb that exploded that evening was recovered on a hillside many miles from Lockerbie and became of critical in the subsequent criminal trial in Camp Zeist as the manufacturer’s name and serial number were still readable. All of the passengers on the flight were recovered, some of the bodies remarkably unmarked, despite the rapid descent in an aircraft blown up at 34,000’ whilst travelling at over 500mph. The black box was intact. Nothing vaporised.

Even Malaysian Airlines MH17, which was destroyed by Bulk surface to air missile whist flying at 33,000’ over east Ukraine in July 2014 gave up its ghosts five months later, when Dutch forensic investigators announced on 5 December they had identified 294 out of the 298 passengers and crew that were on board after a major recovery operation in an extremely hostile environment. Much of the aircraft was recovered too. Little, if anything was vaporised.

Of course, there has been no explanation as to why the 9/11 airplanes and passengers simply vaporised leaving no trace behind. There can’t be as it would be even more ridiculously implausible that the reasons offered by NIST for the WTC 1,2&7 building collapse in New York.

As tragic as all those events were on 9/11, New York remains paramount in emotive recollection – not least because of the violent deaths of over three thousand innocent victims – and it is here where demands for Pandora’s Box to be finally prised open will become irresistible. Only now, a decade and half later, are all the long-term health implications for Manhattan citizens being fully understood and realised. Many of the conditions were triggered by the inhalation of the toxic dust cloud that enveloped lower east side following the collapse of the towers. What was in the dust that proved so debilitating and fatal to those that were exposed? Could it offer any clues why the buildings collapsed in the manner they did?

If Isaac Newton had been around today, then this mystery could have been solved at the outset. All he would have done was to direct our attention to his Third Law and say “go figure”!

Of course, I have no experience of building construction and regulation and can claim no authority in that field. I’m just a simple podiatrist, but the same Newtonian principles apply in my area of expertise and I would be grateful if you can permit me an analogy.

Imagine one of the athletes competing in the long-jump in London this weekend took his final attempt, but on landing, screamed in agony and was rushed off to hospital. On admission his legs are x-rayed and the films show multiple compound fractures of all lower extremity bones – femur, tibia, fibula and all foot bones and joints completely destroyed into small fragments.

If the radiologist’s report came back diagnosing “multiple compound fractures resulting from abnormal impact stress”, then it’s a fair assumption said radiologist would be facing a Fitness to Practice hearing by my old friends at the HCPC in the near future, not that it would solve much – but that diagnosis is simply not possible, unless there was some other pathology present like osteogenisis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) or extensive bone cancer. We can calculate the forces present in our bones and we can determine how much stress can be applied to these structures before a fracture occurs – but common-sense dictates that a healthy athlete doesn’t sustain that kind of injury doing something he has does on a regular basis unless his bones were badly diseased. Newton’s Third Law is again the applicable principle; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Just as in the example of the athlete, it is perfectly possible to calculate the forces present in the WTC building collapse when the top section of the towers fell onto the structure below and from this, an accurate model of damage could be ascertained. But simply applying the principles of Newton’s Third Law renders such calculations unnecessary.

Much argument is focussed on whether kerosene fires could actually weaken steel support columns or floor trusses to the point where they failed completely – but let’s assume for a minute that they suffered the same fate as the aircraft and passengers and simply vaporised. Ten floors of both towers vanished instantly into thin air and the top sections plummeted down 120’ on top of the building below. Applying Newtonian physics to this scenario, one would reasonably expect a fair bit of destruction to occur to the top sections and the buildings below, crushing several floors equally in the impact. But the energy expanded in crushing these floors reduces the force in the falling block decelerating its descent until the resistance from the lower section halts its progress completely. Unless the top section of the building had a mass many times greater than the lower section, the very most that could have been destroyed in the collapse is half of the top section and a corresponding number of floors in the intact building below.

For the WTC buidings to collapse within a second of freefall speed, all three must have been compromised from the basement up. That means they were subjected to controlled demolitions – which doesn’t really square with anything our governments have told us. It doesn’t suit the narrative. But whatever was used to demolish those buildings it is likely that it has contributed to the toxicity of the dust breathed by all those who were present that day and now struggling with the consequences.

I don’t normally recommend YouTube for research, but this short video is worth a watch. Peter Ketcham was a senior NIST investigator and scientist until last August 2016, when he finally concluded his organisation was covering up a major crime and decided to speak out. He is just one of many courageous individuals who have decided the wall of silence must finally be broken.

Not before time.

Lockerbie

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A few days before Christmas in 1988, I was driving south from Scotland heading down to London for an exhibition at the Design Council. I had left Kirkcaldy at the end of the afternoon surgery but had been held up on the Forth Bridge which was undergoing yet another unsuccessful attempt at resurfacing the carriageway – and as a result, it was just approaching 7pm when I pulled into the service station at Hillend to fill the car up for the long drive ahead. As I resumed my journey, the Archer’s theme tune started up and I put a cassette of John Martyn’s Solid Air on instead.

The drive through the Scottish Borders from Edinburgh is a glorious one. Following the south side of the Pentlands the A702 passes through some delightful countryside and villages with stunning views in every direction. Passing through Biggar you gain the main motorway south – the M74 at Abington – and this is the quickest route. I often branch off at West Linton and take the 701 down to Moffat and it is one of Scotland’s best drives – up to the head of the Tweed valley and over the Devil’s Beeftub then down the head of the Annan to Moffat and the motorway. That would be my preference on most days, but the weather that particular evening was not conducive to a jaunt across the high moors; heavy sleet showers pushed on by a stiff south-westerly lashed the windscreen on the Saab as I rounded the hill just up from the Hillend ski slope, so the car was pointed at Biggar and an hour later I was driving up the slip road to the M74 at Abington and had just set the cruise control, when I was met with another line of stationary traffic – and this one wasn’t moving.

The exhibition was the following day and I had a room booked in London that evening and had estimated an arrival time of between 11pm and midnight. That now looked improbable. A few minutes later, when I switched the radio back on, it became impossible.

At approximately the same time as I was filling the car with petrol on the outskirts of Edinburgh, a small explosive device in a Toshiba Cassette recorder detonated in the hold of a Pan Am 747 airliner at 31,000 feet above Lockerbie about 70 miles to the southwest. The rest, as you know, is history.

We were escorted south many hours later, skirting the crash site well to the west of the village and it was later in the day when I first saw the pictures on the television that the enormity of the incident finally became apparent. The sight of the enormous engine, embedded into the tarmac road and the houses ablaze with kerosene will remain with everyone who was around at the time and the worsening weather just added to the gloom and despair.

Over the following years, I followed reports of the disaster as much as I could. My generation had not experienced anything like this before and the mere concept of international terrorism affecting a small Scottish village was an anathema; an explanation or understanding was certainly needed. But the police investigation and subsequent trial in Holland almost twelve years later raised just as many questions as answers with obvious and perplexing contradictions in almost every aspect of the case. The Trial was held in Camp Zeist – an American Air Base in the Netherlands – but under Scottish legal jurisdiction. It was, in essence, the High Court sitting in Holland – and the entire proceedings were broadcast live on television. It was compulsive viewing and fascinating to watch how the trial unfolded and what logical processes are followed to establish the verdict. I was struck how familiar it appeared.

One aspect of my own day job is arriving at a diagnosis when a patient presents with a problem. Sometimes it’s fairly straightforward and the diagnosis is perfectly obvious, but occasionally it is more complicated than that and in these cases, you follow a logical methodology until you can make an accurate determination. Individuals who have suffered severe trauma and have undergone reconstructive or salvage surgery, may present in later years with conditions that have occurred as a result of either the trauma or surgery or both. Sometimes I am asked to determine which is more likely – no doubt to determine whether there is an exploitable liability for the referring agency – and you have to go through a process to get an answer. This involves taking a detailed history and conducting a comprehensive clinical examination then considering the evidence in context of the presenting complaint. Part of the evidence may be subjective – some objective. The clinical examination – or gathering of objective evidence – may include the use of investigative methods like X-Rays and Magnetic Imaging (MRI) or a pathology report – but once you have gathered all the material you are usually in a position to make an informed decision based on all the available evidence. If the evidence is inconclusive you may have to consider alternative or differential diagnoses then apply the evidence base to each to determine which is more probable. It’s good fun and makes the job something of a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Antiques Roadshow at times, which can never be a bad thing.

With some patients however, the process takes much longer. Occasionally someone may come in with a symptomatic condition – pain in a joint or a tendonitis, but you are unable to determine a cause. These conditions are referred to as idiopathic. However, over time, sometimes years, that individual may present with a variety of symptoms or conditions that appear to be unrelated and in themselves may not prove anything or lead you to a diagnosis, but gradually you may see a pattern building and when you bring the evidence together at the appropriate time you very often arrive at a conclusion that with hindsight, often explains many other symptoms and conditions that patient has displayed over the years that you may not have been aware. Advances in medical technology helps. With the advent of MRI we now know of a condition called bone marrow oedema (or osteopenia), which was hitherto unknown. This usually occurs on post-menopausal women and very often it is one of the bones in the foot that is affected and it can be quite debilitating for several months. We weren’t able to make a diagnosis until this type of imaging became available – it was just ‘idiopathic bone pain’.

The point of this is that the methodology used in arriving at a medical diagnosis is usually fairly robust and I could see similarities with the criminal process that was being televised every day from Holland. The available evidence is tested and examined and considered in the overall context of the charges before the court until a verdict – or diagnosis – can be reached by the Judge or the Jury. In the legal process – we already know what the diagnosis will be – either guilty or not guilty – and in Scotland, there is a third – not proven. That is the context in which the evidence is presented, examined and tested.

Of course it is all done with a great deal more pomp and ceremony than you would normally expect to find in my surgery and it can be quite confusing, especially the legal procedures and custom. Often the most important piece of evidence is something you thought inconsequential, which on its own may seem evidentially weak. But a skilled advocate will have identified the importance of that particular piece of evidence in relation to the others and when they pull it all together in their closing arguments, they hope it makes a strong enough case to convince the Judge. Lawyers call it the “cable analogy” – where single strands of wire that, individually, may be quite weak – but when pulled together make something very strong. It is the same methodology as we use when reaching a conclusive diagnosis in patients with complex and developing conditions.

However, there are some glaringly inherent weaknesses in court procedure that, thankfully, do not encumber clinical practice. For example, the only evidence the Prosecution will table is evidence that supports their case. The principal objective being to achieve a conviction, which is not quite the same thing as solving the crime – or reaching a conclusive diagnosis. Very often, it is the subjective evidence that sways the day – the powerful closing speech or a particular inference or conjecture during the examination of a witness – rather than objective evidence, such as forensic tests and corroboration.

The Lockerbie Trial was largely speculative and circumstantial. To the layman watching the live broadcast, a guilty verdict for either of the accused seemed highly improbable. One of the most important pieces of evidence – a tiny fragment of an electronic circuit board used in timers for detonating explosives – was recovered from a remote hill-side and was identified to have come from a Swiss electronics company owned by someone who had previously sold timing devices to the Libyans. It was a plausible argument, but to me seemed highly unlikely given the atrocious weather conditions that night and the vast area wreckage was scattered over. But anything is possible when you don’t know the truth.

This is neither a commentary about the Lockerbie Trial nor an opinion about the veracity of criminal procedure. It is simply an observation that something many of us witnessed has not yet been adequately and properly explained. Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter, Flora, in the disaster, sums it up perfectly when he said recently. “Our governments are not telling us the truth.” Being a medical practitioner, I assume he used his own methodology to reach that conclusion and I can see no reason to disagree. He is probably the most authoritative and knowledgeable voice on the case and yet remains convinced that the verdict is one of the worst miscarriages of justice ever to blight the Scottish legal system.

With Megrahi’s death almost four years ago, the prospect of an posthumous appeal against conviction and sentence seemed unlikely but Jim Swire and other relatives of the victims pushed the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to appeal the verdict. Last week, on the 5th November – a night when the sky is ablaze with explosions – the SCCRC finally decided, with all the sagacious sensitivity of the civil service, to drop the case – and now we will never really know what or who is responsible for the events that night.

Three recent events reminded me of Lockerbie. The announcement by the SCCRC last week was one of them, but the other is a very touching documentary first shown on BBC Four three days earlier. It is about another man’s quest to find out the truth about what happened in the skies above Scotland that bleak December night. Ken Dorstein’s brother David was also on Pan Am 103 and he embarks on a remarkable journey to try and find the man responsible for his brother’s death. It’s worth a watch and you cannot feel anything but admiration for his determination, but I could not help but feel this was an attempt at revisionism as much as enlightenment.

The other reminder was, sadly, the sight of another crashed airliner in a desert in Egypt – in circumstances eerily reminiscent to that we have just discussed. The sight of the twisted fuselage and enormous engines embedded into the charred ground, all too familiar. What chance of the truth being uncovered here?

For me, Lockerbie and the likes of the Egyptian atrocity also illuminate another unsolved mystery – that of September 11th 2001 – where, even more curiously, the aircraft used in the Pentagon and Philadelphia incidents were deemed to have ‘vaporised’ on impact, leaving no traces of evidence behind. Having seen at first hand how robust jet engines are after falling from 31,000 feet into a tarmac road, I find that explanation highly implausible. And when you consider that a tiny fragment of an electronic circuit board could withstand a powerful explosion – and the inclement weather of a Scottish winter – sufficiently enough to be identified and used in evidence, how does a six-tonne Rolls Royce Turbofan jet engine simply disappear into thin air?

One day, we may reach a conclusive diagnosis for all these events and others. But only if we change the methodology of the investigation.