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The 2005 Popular Mechanics article Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Special Report is apparently one of the major sources pointed to by 9/11 anomaly denialists as having definitively "debunked" the idea that the official story of 9/11 is false in any significant way. This page is an analysis of the claims made in that article.

Popular Mechanics apparently also published a book on the same subject, which may be also be deserving of its own analysis.

For brevity, I will use the word "9/11 questioners" (or "911Q" for short) to mean "those who question the official account of 9/11".

Paragraph by Paragraph


Paragraph 1: "From the moment the first airplane crashed..." - people want to know how it happened. True

Paragraph 2: "Three and a half years later, not everyone is convinced we know the truth." - and there are a lot of articles about it that use the word "conspiracy". True

Paragraph 3 makes several implicit claims without stating them clearly; here is the full quote, followed by a list of claims I see implied by that text, with responses:

Healthy skepticism, it seems, has curdled into paranoia. Wild conspiracy tales are peddled daily on the Internet, talk radio and in other media. Blurry photos, quotes taken out of context and sketchy eyewitness accounts have inspired a slew of elaborate theories: The Pentagon was struck by a missile; the World Trade Center was razed by demolition-style bombs; Flight 93 was shot down by a mysterious white jet. As outlandish as these claims may sound, they are increasingly accepted abroad and among extremists here in the United States.

Implied claims:

  • All claims of conspiracy are paranoia. (If any claims were worth examining on their own merits, they would have mentioned this.) This is stating opinion as fact, since it not backed up with evidence or with the promise of evidence.
  • All conspiracy theories are "wild tales" being "peddled" (sold for profit?) "on the Internet" (implying that none of these claims are ever made face-to-face -- ignoring the many lectures, street demonstrations, pamphlets, etc.) This is demonstrably a false claim.
  • The "conspiracy" claims are based entirely on ambiguous evidence such as blurry photos, quotes taken out of context, and "sketchy" eyewitness accounts. false
  • The "conspiracy" theories are all elaborate. false
  • The "conspiracy" theories include the following:
    • The Pentagon was struck by a missile. It is true that some of the theories have argued for this, but also true that this conclusion is not widely accepted by 9/11 questioners. Its persistence is generally regarded as disinformation, and at least one 9/11 questioner web site has debunked these claims. partially true, but also a straw man
    • The World Trade Center was razed by demolition-style bombs. true
    • Flight 93 was shot down by a mysterious white jet. I have never heard the "mysterious white jet" coupled with Flight 93; there was a mysterious white jet seen -- and recorded -- over NYC after the WTC collisions, but it is generally assumed to be a government/military observation plane of some sort. It is true, however, that there is evidence Flight 93 was shot down by the military, though again this is a rather peripheral issue since the military would have been acting properly and competently in that case. This claim is part truth, part distortion, part irrelevance
  • The above claims are "outlandish". opinion stated as fact

Paragraph 4:

To investigate 16 of the most prevalent claims made by conspiracy theorists, POPULAR MECHANICS assembled a team of nine researchers and reporters who, together with PM editors, consulted more than 70 professionals in fields that form the core content of this magazine, including aviation, engineering and the military.

Good. Let's see what they come up with.

Paragraph 5:

In the end, we were able to debunk each of these assertions with hard evidence and a healthy dose of common sense. We learned that a few theories are based on something as innocent as a reporting error on that chaotic day. Others are the byproducts of cynical imaginations that aim to inject suspicion and animosity into public debate. Only by confronting such poisonous claims with irrefutable facts can we understand what really happened on a day that is forever seared into world history.

I'm not sure how they can call any conclusions about 9/11 "irrefutable", since so much of the evidence has now been hauled off and melted down; more like "unfalsifiable"... but okay, let's see how they do.

The Planes

(page 2

Paragraph 1:

The widely accepted account that hijackers commandeered and crashed the four 9/11 planes is supported by reams of evidence, from cockpit recordings to forensics to the fact that crews and passengers never returned home. Nonetheless, conspiracy theorists seize on a handful of "facts" to argue a very different scenario: The jets that struck New York and Washington, D.C., weren't commercial planes, they say, but something else, perhaps refueling tankers or guided missiles. And the lack of military intervention? Theorists claim it proves the U.S. government instigated the assault or allowed it to occur in order to advance oil interests or a war agenda.

I would not attempt to defend any of the theories which are here ascribed to questioners. It seems very likely that the planes officially identified were indeed hijacked and crashed into the locations given in the official story. There are some oddities in the evidence, but nothing that leads to any clear contradiction of those elements in the official story.

Paragraph 2 describes conspiracy theory claim #1 as follows:

Photographs and video footage shot just before United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) show an object underneath the fuselage at the base of the right wing. The film "911 In Plane Site" and the Web site LetsRoll911.org claim that no such object is found on a stock Boeing 767. They speculate that this "military pod" is a missile, a bomb or a piece of equipment on an air-refueling tanker. LetsRoll911.org points to this as evidence that the attacks were an "inside job" sanctioned by "President George Bush, who planned and engineered 9/11."

Yes, this theory is often mentioned in media productions -- but is not taken seriously by most 9/11 questioners, including myself. This is a straw man, and "debunking" it does not prove anything.

Paragaph 3 decribes conspiracy theory claim #2 as follows:

No fighter jets were scrambled from any of the 28 Air Force bases within close range of the four hijacked flights. "On 11 September Andrews had two squadrons of fighter jets with the job of protecting the skies over Washington D.C.," says the Web site emperors-clothes.com. "They failed to do their job." "There is only one explanation for this," writes Mark R. Elsis of StandDown.net. "Our Air Force was ordered to Stand Down on 9/11."

There may have initially been some confusion about this, as official records were difficult to obtain (and of course the 9/11 Commission did very little work towards sorting out the facts on the matter), but my understanding is that the problem is not that no jets were scrambled, but that the jets were scrambled late, sent in the wrong direction, and not authorized to shoot.

Paragraph 4 responds to claim #2 thusly:

On 9/11 there were only 14 fighter jets on alert in the contiguous 48 states. No computer network or alarm automatically alerted the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) of missing planes. "They [-15s from Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth, Mass., and three F-16s from Langley Air National Guard Base in Hampton, Va. None of the fighters got anywhere near the pirated planes.

9/11 Review (filed) has this to say about that:

The idea that Air Traffic Control had to "pick up the phone and literally dial" NORAD -- a routine procedure in handling unresponsive aircraft -- does not begin to explain the long gaps between ATC being aware of off-course and non-responsive jetliners and NORAD acting. Standard procedure was for ATC to notify NORAD if they were unable to contact such an aircraft within three minutes.

To which I would add: The first hijacker message was at 08:24 ("we have some planes..."), at about the same time AA11 veered off course. Why was NORAD only notified at 8:37? (see 9-11/timeline)? Why did none of the fighters make it "anywhere near the pirated planes"?

Paragraph 5 continues responding to claim #2:

Why couldn't ATC find the hijacked flights? When the hijackers turned off the planes' transponders, which broadcast identifying signals, ATC had to search 4500 identical radar blips crisscrossing some of the country's busiest air corridors. And NORAD's sophisticated radar? It ringed the continent, looking outward for threats, not inward. "It was like a doughnut," Martin says. "There was no coverage in the middle." Pre-9/11, flights originating in the States were not seen as threats and NORAD wasn't prepared to track them.

Claims in this paragraph include:

  • right-arrow debaticon With the transponders off, ATC had to search through identical radar blips looking for the errant planes.
    • down-arrow debaticon When the jetliners' transponders were switched off, their blips on the ATC screens lost their identifying data, and would stand out against the remaining blips, which were labeled. (9/11 Review)
  • right-arrow debaticon NORAD's radar "ringed the continent, looking outward for threats, not inward."
  • right-arrow debaticon Pre-9/11, flights originating in the States were not seen as threats and NORAD wasn't prepared to track them.
    • down-arrow debaticon This does not jibe with my own memory of pre-9/11 hijacking incidents, where shoot-downs were discussed but never actually performed, but I have no objective sources for this yet. --Woozle 20:04, 30 July 2011 (EDT)

Paragraphs 6 and 7 describe conspiracy theory claim #3 as follows:

On Sept. 11, FOX News broadcast a live phone interview with FOX employee Marc Birnbach. 911inplanesite.com states that "Bernback" saw the plane "crash into the South Tower." "It definitely did not look like a commercial plane," Birnbach said on air. "I didn't see any windows on the sides."


Again, this is a straw man; this claim is not taken seriously by most 9/11 questioners, and indeed has been debunked by them.

No need to quote PM's paragraphs 8 and 9 refuting this claim; we agree that it is bogus.

Paragraph 10 describes conspiracy theory claim #4 thusly:

"It has been standard operating procedures for decades to immediately intercept off-course planes that do not respond to communications from air traffic controllers," says the Web site oilempire.us. "When the Air Force 'scrambles' a fighter plane to intercept, they usually reach the plane in question in minutes."

Paragraph 11 responds to claim #4:

In the decade before 9/11, NORAD intercepted only one civilian plane over North America: golfer Payne Stewart's Learjet, in October 1999. With passengers and crew unconscious from cabin decompression, the plane lost radio contact but remained in transponder contact until it crashed. Even so, it took an F-16 1 hour and 22 minutes to reach the stricken jet. Rules in effect back then, and on 9/11, prohibited supersonic flight on intercepts. Prior to 9/11, all other NORAD interceptions were limited to offshore Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ). "Until 9/11 there was no domestic ADIZ," FAA spokesman Bill Schumann tells PM. After 9/11, NORAD and the FAA increased cooperation, setting up hotlines between ATCs and NORAD command centers, according to officials from both agencies. NORAD has also increased its fighter coverage and has installed radar to monitor airspace over the continent.

9/11 Review refutes this:

PM's claim that only one civilian plane was intercepted over North America in decade before 9/11 is preposterous and illustrates how sloppy the article is with facts. While the military doesn't report intercepts, the AP reported the following statement from one of PM's own experts, Maj. Douglas Martin: "From Sept. 11 to June, NORAD scrambled jets or diverted combat air patrols 462 times, almost seven times as often as the 67 scrambles from September 2000 to June 2001, Martin said."

The World Trade Center

(page 3)

Paragraph 1: The collapse of both World Trade Center towers--and the smaller WTC 7 a few hours later--initially surprised even some experts. But subsequent studies have shown that the WTC's structural integrity was destroyed by intense fire as well as the severe damage inflicted by the planes. That explanation hasn't swayed conspiracy theorists, who contend that all three buildings were wired with explosives in advance and razed in a series of controlled demolitions.

This subject is more completely covered in 9-11/anomalies/collapse, and the even-more-anomalous collapse of WTC7 (which was not hit by a plane, nor damaged anywhere near as heavily as several other buildings which remained standing) is covered in 9-11/anomalies/WTC7.

In summary, though, this is argument by contradiction propped up with an argument from authority: 9/11 questioners say "the collapses don't make sense", but PM says "studies show they do", without even bothering to discuss the reasons why they agree with the conclusions of those studies.

Paragraph 2 states conspiracy theory claim #5 as follows:

The first hijacked plane crashed through the 94th to the 98th floors of the World Trade Center's 110-story North Tower; the second jet slammed into the 78th to the 84th floors of the 110-story South Tower. The impact and ensuing fires disrupted elevator service in both buildings. Plus, the lobbies of both buildings were visibly damaged before the towers collapsed. "There is NO WAY the impact of the jet caused such widespread damage 80 stories below," claims a posting on the San Diego Independent Media Center Web site (sandiego.indymedia.org). "It is OBVIOUS and irrefutable that OTHER EXPLOSIVES (... such as concussion bombs) HAD ALREADY BEEN DETONATED in the lower levels of tower one at the same time as the plane crash."

This is one of the more ambiguous pieces of evidence. There is substantial evidence for bombs either being found or going off prior to the tower collapse, but the damage to the lobbies is easily explained away as having been caused by pressure waves conducted through the core of the building, via elevator shafts, or by some other means. It is mysterious, but not at all conclusive.

PM's response essentially agrees with this.

9/11 Research dismisses it as a likely red herring, but nonetheless links to this source (original currently unavailable), which contains some fairly convincing and seemingly-competent eyewitness accounts favoring the explosion theory.

Given that this claim is not important to the case against the official story. its rebuttal by PM is a straw man, regardless of whether the claim itself turns out to be true.

Paragraph 3 states conspiracy theory claim #6 as follows:

"We have been lied to," announces the Web site AttackOnAmerica.net. "The first lie was that the load of fuel from the aircraft was the cause of structural failure. No kerosene fire can burn hot enough to melt steel." The posting is entitled "Proof Of Controlled Demolition At The WTC."

PM refutes this claim in paragraphs 4-7.

Paragraph 4:


This is a more substantial issue, at least on the surface, because at least one source apparently admitted as part of the official story quite early on (Eagar 2001) states that "The temperature of the fire at the WTC was not unusual, and it was most definitely not capable of melting steel.", so there should not have been any belief that officials were claiming that the steel had "melted".

As partially argued in this article, citing data archived here:

  • "Load rating" in a static structure, such as a building, generally has a 400% safety margin (i.e. the material should be capable of bearing a load five times the "rated" load).
  • At PM's cited temperature of 1500°F (~816°C), this graph indicates that steel would retain about 10% of its strength, bringing its actual load-bearing capability to half the rated load -- making collapse likely. However...
    • The hottest temperature found in metallurgical analysis of WTC steel samples (selected for their proximity to the hottest parts of the fire, no less) was 452°F (~233°C) -- not hot enough to soften steel noticeably
    • The maximum temperature ever achieved in an open-sided car-park fire, with no insulation on the girders, was 360°C.
  • In addition, the steel used in the WTC was supposedly rated for 1000°C for 6 hours (though I need to find a source for that) (the discrepancy between that rating and the lower temperatures at which steel softens is due to the fact that mere exposure to a fire of a given temperature does not generally result in heating the steel to that same temperature; there is heat loss between flame and steel, and steel is also a very good heat conductor -- and the WTC buildings were unusually large heat sinks into which that heat could be dissipated)
  • And finally, no steel-frame building had ever collapsed due to fire prior to this event, despite many opportunities

I would add that despite this, it is possible that the warping of the steel was a contributing factor to the collapses (as suggested by Eagar), especially in the case of WTC2 which showed signs of mechanical failure (top floors beginning to topple away from the base) before the explosions and free-fall phase began. Arguments based on temperature seem to me among the less compelling of the pro-demolition arguments.

Paragraph 5:

<-hiri of the American Institute of Steel Construction. "And at 1800° it is probably at less than 10 percent." NIST also believes that a great deal of the spray-on fireproofing insulation was likely knocked off the steel beams that were in the path of the crashing jets, leaving the metal more vulnerable to the heat.

Nothing new here, except to note:

  • the knocking off of the insulation is completely irrelevant, as the temperatures given assume no insulation. Any remaining insulation would only increase the heat required
  • heat (as in a fire) will not induce a temperature (in steel) of the same magnitude, due to heat loss between the fire and the steel and conduction of the heat into the vast heat-sink of the WTC inner structure

Paragraph 6:

But jet fuel wasn't the only thing burning, notes Forman Williams

Paragraph 7:

"The jet fuel was the ignition source," Williams tells PM. "It burned for maybe 10 minutes, and [the towers] were still standing in 10 minutes. It was the rest of the stuff burning afterward that was responsible for the heat transfer that eventually brought them down."

Since 9/11 Research has done a pretty good job of debunking this article, and my time is limited, I'm going to stop here for now. --Woozle 21:28, 30 July 2011 (EDT)