The standing ovation has finally died down, and Steven E. Jones, a soft-spoken physics professor, finds himself pinned against the stage by some of the enthusiastic fans who packed a University of Denver auditorium over the weekend to see him.
A man with a “Got truth?” T-shirt offers Jones a careful explanation for why the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center were operated by remote control. Another quizzes him about the size of the footprint of the Pentagon crash – too small, he says, for the Boeing 757 that “officially” smashed into it on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Can I just shake your hand?” a woman in a baggy red sweater asks Jones. “You’re doing such important work.”
If anything, Jones appears embarrassed by all the attention. Quiet and self-effacing, he’s an unlikely hero for 9/11 conspiracy theorists of every stripe, but that’s exactly what he’s become.
A physicist whose background includes work on nuclear fusion, Jones was put on leave by Brigham Young University in September after publishing a paper saying that the twin towers couldn’t have collapsed solely as a result of the planes that rammed the upper floors on Sept. 11. The paper theorizes that explosives planted inside the building must have been involved and that the buildings’ collapse was essentially a controlled demolition.
Though Jones doesn’t specify who he believes planted the charges, he concedes it would have had to be “an inside job” and likely would have included either very powerful figures on the American scene or entities inside the government.
“It’s a thought that I admit has made me lose some sleep,” Jones said.
Neither the 9/11 commission nor other extensive government reports have found any evidence of a secondary cause of the towers’ collapse.
But Jones and his work reflect the mainstreaming of a movement that has defied the Bush administration’s efforts to put it to rest and mystified people who have studied the events of that day closely: A startlingly large percentage of the population simply doesn’t believe the official explanation for the towers’ fall.
A national poll by the Scripps Survey Center at Ohio University conducted in the summer found that more than a third of people questioned believed the government either planned the attacks or could have stopped them but didn’t.
That has worried government officials enough that the State Department recently published a report titled “The Top Sept. 11 Conspiracy Theories,” an effort to debunk many of them. Separately, the National Institute of Standards and Technology – the government arm that investigated why the towers collapsed – published a seven-page document in September that attempted to answer some of the skeptics.
“We’ve watched it gain momentum,” said Brent Blanchard, director of field operations for New Jersey-based Protec Documentation Services, which studies and monitors building demolitions.
“It’s really been fascinating in a way,” he said. “We’ve been able to watch the birth of the completely out-of-control allegations that could not be true for so many reasons.”
Among the most basic of those, Blanchard said, is that there’s a consensus that the collapse of the towers began at or near the point where the planes entered the buildings, rather than at the base, where traditional demolition occurs. That means that the explosives would have had to survive the initial crash and superheated fires until they were detonated – for nearly an hour in the case of one tower, 102 minutes in the case of the other.
“That’s absolutely impossible,” Blanchard said.
Beyond that, he said, planting the explosives in secret would have been an incredible logistical undertaking.
But to the growing Sept. 11 conspiracy movement, Jones provides what even advocates concede they had been lacking: a scientific approach backed up with meticulous data analysis and carefully devised experimental testing.
Jones – who has agreed to retire from BYU at the end of 2006 – said in an interview that his first doubts emerged when he saw a video of the collapse of World Trade Center 7, the 47- story office building that collapsed seven hours after the twin towers.
The collapse took just 6.5 seconds, only a half-second more than the free-fall time a ball bearing would take when dropped from that height. That simply couldn’t take account of the normal resistance of steel columns and concrete that should have slowed the collapse by at least a few seconds, he said, but it did fit the model of a controlled demolition.
The physicist said that in more than a year of investigation, he found thermite residue in samples of dust found near ground zero and on one of the steel beams used in a Sept. 11 memorial. Thermite is a compound that, when ignited, produces incredibly high temperatures and is used by the military in incendiary grenades and to cut through steel.
Some government reports have also identified a significant presence of odd substances – including sulfur and zinc – and have noted that there is no obvious explanation for their presence. Jones said sulfur and zinc are part of a typical thermite fingerprint.
“I’m not willing to say yet that this is conclusive, but it does deserve explanation. What we’re asking for is more study and a major investigation,” said Jones, who has helped organize a group called Scholars for 9/11 Truth.
For many observers, Jones’ work says less about a hidden conspiracy behind Sept. 11 than it does an unease with the event and what has followed.
“First of all, there is the event itself,” said Christopher Farrell of the conservative think tank Judicial Watch. “It shocked, upset and offended people. Then after the fact, there were a number of contradictions or holes in the information available.”
Blanchard is more blunt: “The government’s done a lot of things in the last couple of years that has caused people to doubt their integrity about anything, including this stuff about WMD and other problems.”
After Jones’ lecture Saturday, a distinguished man with graying hair said he came because he had heard the physicist on the radio and thought it was remarkable that a scientist from so conservative a state as Utah would be a doubter.
“As you study this whole thing more, it seems to me there are a lot of valid questions,” he said.
The man said he was a businessman and didn’t want his name in the paper.
“I’m still in the business world,” he said, “and I’d be ridiculed just for being here.”