John Zils watched the World Trade Center burn on a television on the ninth floor of the Santa Fe Building, where the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is headquartered. “I would have never ever dreamed those buildings would have collapsed in their entirety,” says Zils, a structural engineer who, in his 33 years at the firm, has worked on the John Hancock Center, the Sears Tower, the Haj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Saudi Arabia, and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. “When it became obvious what was happening I rolled up my drawings for the Sears Tower and the John Hancock building. We got out of here and went to the Union League Club and got a room there and then called the Sears Tower and the Hancock and told them where we were. If anything happened and they needed help, we stayed there for the day.”

Three days later Zils and two colleagues drove to New York. He was amazed at the logistical elan with which the engineering community had rallied to assess the wreckage. The site was divided into quadrants; camped out in two nearby high school classrooms, 16 teams of three or four engineers each took 12-hour shifts. “The complexity and the massiveness of the destruction was beyond description,” he says. “You grab this piece and it was tangled into another one and then another one and so on. The whole mess was that kind of intertwined pile, so it was a very laborious, very deliberate dismantling. You’d find a cavity that would go down underneath the pile. The rescue workers, the firemen, and the police wouldn’t go in these places. They’d ask us first and then we’d go in there and try to ascertain if they were stable. This was seat-of-your pants engineering. You didn’t sit there with your calculator.”

Zils was in his element, though nothing in his background, not even a stint in the Army Corps of Engineers, quite prepared him for the next six weeks. His father and grandfather were both electricians and he grew up loving to build stuff. He enrolled in the architecture program at Lane Tech High School and got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

That first night, he says, “We looked like coal miners, absolutely filthy, with all our gear and flashlights. We hiked about an hour from the site through empty streets and here up ahead we see a massive group of people…. And as we get closer all of a sudden these people start waving flags, clapping and yelling. They were all out there just waiting, standing there by the hour, for any workers to come out to cheer them up.” One day Zils and his crew stopped for breakfast at a diner and the cashier wouldn’t take their money. “Those kinds of things were happening all over the place,” he says.

Besides clambering through the debris at Ground Zero, Zils and a colleague were assigned to inspect 7 of some 400 nearby buildings for structural damage. “One late afternoon the first week we were there, we stood on the roof of a building immediately adjacent to the towers site when the sun was just starting to go down,” he says. “It was the most gruesome, grotesque experience you can imagine, because the sun was being filtered through all the smoke and steam. If there was a description of hell on earth, this was it. We stood there for ten minutes and didn’t say anything.”

Zils will give a talk titled “Observations From Ground Zero” at 6 on Thursday, April 25. It’s in the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Lecture Hall Gallery at 224 S. Michigan, where 54 photographs of the towers taken by Camilo Jose Vergara are on display through June 4. Admission is $15; call 312-922-3432.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.