Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Rolling dust cloud filled USGS scientists with a sense of urgency
By Andrew Schneider, Post-Dispatch, February 9, 2002

     DENVER - Chemists, geophysicists, astrophysicists and other scientists cloistered in the sprawling U.S. Geological Survey complex here are not emergency responders. Their work is detailed, methodical, with little room for haste or need for spontaneity. They track water poisoned by mining, search for cracks in the Earth's crust, and explore for minerals on Mars and Saturn.
     But when a terrorist attack leveled the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, that all changed. "We sat at home, watched that gray-white cloud roll over lower Manhattan, and knew damned well that the dust was going to hurt a lot of people," said Gregg Swayze, a USGS geophysicist. "I knew we had the best technology in the world to determine precisely what was in that dust."
     For more than a month, about two dozen men and women shelved their ongoing projects and found themselves worried about fighter intercepts and White House demands and people they didn't know. Many worked 18-hour days, speeded up normally slow-moving science and used the most sophisticated analytical equipment to help the people of New York.
     Part of that technology was a remote-sensing unit designed for use in exploring planets, called Airborne Visible Infrared Spectrometer. AVIRIS, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, reads the infrared signatures of minerals reflected from the ground into its sensors. Then, they are compared with the unique peaks and curves - similar to a fingerprint - of the signatures of thousands of minerals and materials in the Geological Survey's vast database.
     When used by NASA, the device is often strapped inside a modified U-2 plane that flies 12.5 miles above the Earth's surface. But when the USGS team uses AVIRIS, it's most often poking through a hole in the belly of a de Havilland Twin Otter prop plane. On Sept. 11, the twin-engine aircraft was on a science mission along the East Coast before it was grounded in Atlanta, ordered to land like every other aircraft that morning. "We needed to get that aircraft up and over New York if we were going to accomplish anything," said Roger Clark, the astrophysicist who heads USGS' portion of the AVIRIS program in Denver. But first they needed approval from NASA, which owned the plane, the AVIRIS and the crews that operate it.

Step 1: Avoid getting shot down
     On Sept. 12, Clark contacted his counterpart, Robert Green, who heads the AVIRIS program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. By Sept. 13, Green had permission from NASA to fly the mission. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy had signed off on the flight. And the Air Force had agreed not to shoot the Twin Otter down. With permission granted, Clark's team had to determine exactly how many passes over Manhattan would be needed to survey the spread of the dust.
     Swayze rushed three blocks to building 810, the USGS store in Denver. He grabbed the four topographic maps of Manhattan and spent the next two hours with pencil and ruler precisely plotting how many flights would be needed to cover the disaster area and surrounding apartments and offices. "We knew the age of the World Trade buildings and that it likely was built with much asbestos-containing material in the concrete, the floor tiles, the fireproofing and walls," said Clark, who is a member of the team running NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and the Cassini flight to Saturn. "We wanted to see how far the dust had spread."

Airborne at high noon
     As they prepared for the flight, the Denver team determined that 14 passes would be needed, going from Central Park to Jersey City, N.J., to cover lower Manhattan. The longitude and latitude of each starting and ending point was e-mailed to NASA pilots Bill Clark and John Longenecker. In the cabin of the Otter, Betina Pavri and Charles Sarture had fine-tuned AVIRIS and had prepared the vessels of liquid nitrogen needed to cool its infrared detectors.
     On Sept. 16, around noon when the sun was highest, lighting as much of the dark canyons between the buildings as possible, the first of the USGS missions was flown. The first pass was at 6,500 feet above Manhattan; the second pass at an altitude of 12,500 feet. The data tapes were loaded on a FEMA jet and flown to the Jet Propulsion Lab at Pasadena. They arrived at 2 a.m., where Green and Frank Loiza were waiting.
     The first evaluation of the data on Sept. 17 cut through the heavy smoke and clearly showed 34 fires burning deep in the bowels of the collapsed World Trade Center complex. That was more than anyone had anticipated. Maps were prepared and shipped to emergency response teams in New York. Based on this information, firefighters redeployed their equipment and changed how they were attacking the fires, which AVIRIS measured at heat ranging between 800 degrees and 1,000 degrees. "Everything we were finding went through the White House first," Clark said.

Collecting dust on the ground
     For AVIRIS' data to be most useful, measurements for calibration must be taken on the ground under the flight path. So Swayze and Todd Hoefen, another USGS geophysicist, flew to New York on Sept. 17. Their backpacks filled with respirators, protective clothing, dozens of sampling bags and a hand-held version of AVIRIS - something like a Star Trek tricorder - they set out to get the calibration data. Somehow, they said, they got through airport security without a second glance.
     For three days, they took calibration sightings during the day and at night. Taking the ferry across the Hudson from New Jersey, they collected samples of dust in zipper-lock freezer bags from window ledges, flower pots, car windshields - anyplace it was collecting. They hoofed it out two miles - or to the river's edge - in each direction of the compass from the collapsed towers and gathered three dozen samples. They found an all-night Kinko's and shipped the special calibrations back to Denver over the Internet.
     Worried that a rainstorm the night of Sept. 14 might have altered the dust, Swayze and Hoefen found dry samples - dust from an apartment on the 30th floor about three blocks from the World Trade Center and a gymnasium in the World Financial Center across from the smoldering ruins.
     Finding and analyzing the dry dust was crucial, the scientists said, because it presented an accurate picture of what risks workers and residents would face if they encountered dust that hadn't been rained upon or splashed with wash water. "AVIRIS offers a bird's-eye view - coarse and broad," Clark said. "The ground samples that Gregg and Todd collected gave us up-close, specific information on specific points." But the mission wasn't over. The White House science office asked that AVIRIS be flown again because more information was needed, Green said. On Sept. 18, 22 and 23, the Twin Otter and its $15 million-plus sensor crisscrossed Manhattan.

Inside the USGS anthill
     By the afternoon of Sept. 20, the ground samples were back in Denver, being split among the different laboratories that dotted the rat's maze of hallways. "The place looked like an anthill that someone kicked," said Gregory Meeker, head of the agency's mircobeam laboratory. "Everyone was grabbing their samples and running."
     Clark, Swayze, Hoefen and Eric Livo were in the Imaging Spectroscopy Lab. Meeker was running the scanning electron microscope and doing energy dispersive spectroscopy. Steve Sutley was conducting X-ray diffraction on his sample of dust. Joe Taggart was doing X-ray fluorescence. And Geoffrey Plumlee and Phil Hageman were doing chemical analysis and chemical leach testing.
     Sam Vance, an environmental scientist with the EPA who is liaison to the Geological Survey, was notifying his agency, New York health officials and the U.S. Public Health Service of the preliminary results of tests and what his colleagues were doing next. "All of these techniques are used to define the composition of the dust, and we were looking at 40 different minerals," Swayze said. "They each back each other up. Some techniques can see more than others, and we were throwing in every technique we had in house." Clark said: "We didn't know what we were going to find. We've never had a pulverized World Trade Center to analyze before."   
     Within hours, some results started coming back. They did find the asbestos they were searching for. But they also found an alphabet soup of heavy metals. But the real surprise was the pH of the dust. It registered a high of 12.1 on the samples taken indoors. Ammonia has a pH of 10. The degree of acidity or alkalinity in a material is expressed as a pH measurement. Neutral pH - like water - is 7 on a 15-point scale. From less than 7 to zero is an indication of acid. From higher than 7 to 14, the top of the scale, is alkaline. Levels near either end of the pH scale can harm health.
     Plumlee was mixing one part of dust to 20 parts of water. "We simulated the rain mixing with the dust, which gives an idea of what the dust will do when it contacts tissue that is consistently moist like lungs, throat, eyes and such," the geochemist said. "We were startled at the pH level we were finding," he added. "We knew that the cement dust was caustic, but we were getting pH readings of 12 and higher. It was obvious that precautions had to be taken to protect the workers and people returning to their homes from the dust." Significant efforts are being made at ground zero to keep the work area wet, to suppress the dust, but this has minimal effect on the hazards of pockets of dust just below the surface. Environmental cleanup specialists say that large amounts of water, a week or two of heavy rain, are needed to neutralize the high pH.

Bringing in the health experts
     While the USGS team is considered the world's leading authority in mineral composition, its members are not health experts. They took their findings to toxicologists and emergency coordinators from the EPA and physicians from the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control. These medical authorities agreed that the Geological Survey's findings, especially the high pH levels, must be available to those setting rules for worker safety and those considering whether and when to permit people to return to their homes and offices, the scientists said. 
     All scientific reports go through a cumbersome and extensive peer review. The USGS team broke all records and had their findings reviewed and on a "government-only" Web site within a week. "It was important to get the information out to those who needed it," Clark said. "What we wanted to indicate to emergency response workers and those making decisions about people returning to their homes and offices was that in addition to the high pH, there were heavy metals, especially chromium and aluminum, in the dust which could be released by water."
     On Sept. 27, the information was e-mailed to all the government contacts the team had. "Then it was sent to EPA, FEMA, OSHA and everyone else that seemed to be in charge," Clark said. "It was just obvious that people needed to know what was in that dust." But even today, most New Yorkers have never been told what the USGS team found in the dust.

The public version of the USGS report can be found at 


This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

Take me back to learn more