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  September 17, 2001

Faculty Experts Tapped in Wake of Tragedy

The world watched in shock as the twin towers came tumbling down.

Erling Murtha-Smith, head of the civil and environmental engineering department, was stunned by the horrific scene but not surprised by the collapse of the buildings.

Murtha-Smith is an expert in structural integrity and progressive collapse. He was part of the team that investigated the collapse of the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum roof in 1978.

And he was one of several UConn experts the media turned to after Tuesday's terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to put the day's events in perspective.

Murtha-Smith explained that the plane crashes themselves did not cause the collapses. Instead, it was the fire and intense heat from the crashes that weakened the steel beams. They became compromised and unable to support the weight of the upper floors, which led to both structures collapsing like a house of cards.

Paul Goodwin, a professor of history, spoke to journalists from around the state about the history of terrorism. Goodwin has previously taught a course called the historical roots of terrorism and will teach it again during the intersession.

"Looking at the terrorist act as an historian, it is clear that Tuesday's events have become a defining moment for many Americans, much as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, and the landing of men on the moon were," Goodwin said. "But we must be careful with allusions to Pearl Harbor, which was an act of war and an attack by a nation against our naval base. What happened in New York and Washington was an act of terror that differs from other terrorist incidents only in its magnitude."

Goodwin urged journalists and the general public not to jump to conclusions about who perpetrated the deadly attacks.

"News commentators, in trying to come to grips with the scale of the event use comparisons that are equally shocking - but those comparisons may not be accurate and may contribute to a reaction that could prove to be quite volatile," Goodwin said. "Throughout American history, some people have attacked totally innocent parties to 'get even' or to satisfy some kind of 'blood lust.' This kind of emotional, irrational and violent response plays right into the hands of terrorists, who hope to foster precisely that kind of reaction. As a people, we must be morally tough, exhibit some patience, and act only on the basis of demonstrably accurate information."

The terrorist attacks against the U.S. resulted in immediate calls for increased security at sites ranging from airports to federal buildings, and even the Connecticut Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at the University's pathobiology department.

The lab is the state's diagnostic facility for animals and, like its counterparts around the country, is considered the first line of defense against bioterrorism.

According to Richard French, one of the attending veterinarians, the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have issued alerts for increased monitoring of "any possible unusual disease patterns," including chemical and biological agents that may be associated with the terrorist attacks on Tuesday.

French says the alert heightens the veterinarians' awareness of the seriousness of the situation, but it does not change anything they do, because looking for such evidence is already part of their normal job.

Allison Thompson

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