Title Page Previous Next Contents | Part 1. A Day of Disaster >Tests for a ‘dirty bomb’

Tests for a ‘dirty bomb’


A major concern was that terrorists could have unleashed a so-called “dirty bomb,” an explosive device containing radioactive compounds like cesium.


Within minutes of the crash, McKinney sent a radiological health inspector to check the site for any radiation sources. He reached Richard Borri, a senior scientist in the department’s office of Radiological Health, who like most people from DOH, was on his way to work when the first tower was hit.

People flee and look back at the dust cloud from the fall of the towers - 11:10 a.m.
Photo: Paul Olivier

“While I was walking down Church Street, with all my instruments, I came within 1000 feet of the South Tower, and unfortunately the building came down,” says Borri, sounding every bit the unruffled scientist. “It’s a good thing I walked slowly.”


How does one continue on one’s mission without getting distracted by such details as a 110-story building comes down in front of you? “You concentrate on what you need to do,” says Borri, who simply walked amid the vehicles and victims covered with layers and layers of soot, “taking samples off the people coming out of the building.”


The high-tech gadget he carried, one of the few available in the United States, is far more precise than its century-old cousin, the Geiger Counter.


Borri checked the World Trade Center site for signs of radiation before and after the collapse of the buildings. Radiation could have originated in industrial radiology sources, such as the installing beams of the huge office buildings, which may have contained some radioactive elements from x-rays taken, and from depleted uranium used in ballasts in aircraft wing tips (such counterweights in airplane wing tips give the most weight for least volume, says Borri). It might also be left from any medical or dental offices.

The far more serious threat, of course, was the chance that one of the hijackers might have carried a suitcase of radioactive materials or a dirty bomb, a conventional bomb spiked with radioactive material. Such a bomb has been compared to TNT, strapped to a container of plutonium or plutonium-contaminated waste. This kind of a device would not produce a nuclear explosion, but it could spread deadly radioactive matter across a swath of city.

According to Borri, the fear with a dirty bomb is that hundreds, maybe thousands, could die from radiation poisoning and cancer, and the area could be poisoned for years. (Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, says Borri.)

That was fortunately not the case, Borri found, using a portable liquid scintillation counter, which measures radioactivity like a Geiger counter. The high-tech portable gadget he carried, one of the few available in the United States, is far more precise than its century-old cousin, the Geiger, counter with a much more refined ability to detect any kind of radioactivity.


“If you’re creative you can get what you need to without getting in another agency’s way pulling samples,” says Borri, who was dodging fire trucks and police vehicles and hordes of people streaming out of the building. “It’s not a good idea to walk into the center of the action. Some of the people weren’t walking as slowly as I was.”


Although Borri didn’t turn up any problematic radioactive readings by the end of the day, his work would be supplemented by the federal Department of Energy, whose technicians remained on site and continued to sample. [Only during the last days of the Ground Zero cleanup would radioactive testers find any evidence of radioactive emissions, from a pharmacy laboratory located within one of the buildings.]


The city’s Health Department also sent several other trouble-shooters to the scene immediately, says McKinney. Unlike inspectors with particular specialties, trained to adhere to a set of detailed protocols in specific situations (sanitary inspections of restaurant, for instance, or safety inspections at swimming pools) and unlike Borri, a radiation specialist, these seasoned trouble-shooters were trained to identify and analyze unknown hazards in virtually any setting. “Their primary direction was to be the Department's eyes on the scene, and to communicate to us detailed descriptions of emerging health hazards,” says McKinney.


 “We heard the first boom in this office,” says Angela Carpenter, an environmental scientist working in the EPA Region II office. “Looking south to the tip of Manhattan, we had a direct view of the Trade Center, and there were some people who got a direct view of their family being killed.”


He dispatched two public health sanitarians including Inspectors Mojgan Keshtgar and Yolanda Brooks, from the Office of Environmental Investigations, to the scene.  “Keshtgar and Brooks drove the few blocks to the scene in a DOH Jeep Cherokee,” McKinney remembers. 


“When Tower 2 came down they joined the fleeing crowd and ducked into a building a couple of blocks north of the Trade Center. Several other people followed them and they took cover behind the first unlocked door they could find, an electrical closet on the first floor of a Church Street office building. They stayed for about twenty minutes and then made their way out onto the street and back up to DOH headquarters.” The Cherokee, however, McKinney adds, was lost.


Two other Office of Environmental Investigations inspectors, Supervisor Peter Stallbohm and Inspector James Scullin, rushed downtown, in the absence of orders to the contrary, and found themselves in similar circumstances.  They fled the scene as well. Although Scullin survived the episode, he would later learn that the tragedy would take his own father, Arthur Warren Scullin, a Vice President at MMC who worked in Tower 1, says McKinney.


Within several hours, Revella, McKinney and several other key people in city government would have set up several temporary command posts and systems for monitoring the air and removing dust and debris. That included:



From the very beginning, Revella helped enlist the aid of ironworkers to begin taking apart the charred remains of the World Trade Center and other buildings downtown. The cleanup needed anyone available who could cut steel. (21)

Photo:  Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo

“Do you have torches?” he remembers asking the union that day. “’Of course, we’re ironworkers,’ they told me. ‘Well, get on the pile, and start cutting,’ I told them.”

That first day, Capt. Revella was able to get some air samples through Con Edison, but many environmental monitors were simply clogged by the high-particulate dust. (22)



From the federal Department of Environmental Protection offices, which looked on the Trade Center towers, employees watched as people leapt to their deaths—some of them presumed loved ones. “We heard the first boom in this office,” says Angela Carpenter, an environmental scientists working in the EPA Region II office five blocks north of the WTC.  “Looking south to the tip of Manhattan, we had a direct view of the Trade Center and there were some people who got a direct view of their family being killed.”