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20th anniversary of 9/11: Was Martin Tower scouted as possible terrorist target?

It was a day as any other in August 2001 in Bethlehem City Hall.

A city worker was going about the routine business of weekday municipal government at 10 E. Church St., Bethlehem, when two men entered the office.

They began asking questions. The questions didn’t have to do with municipal services.

“What is that tall building over there?” asked one of the men.

“What building?” the employee replied. “The red brick building at Broad and New streets? That’s a bank building.”

“No, no,” said the man. “The tall, gray building.”

“Oh, that’s the former headquarters of Bethlehem Steel,” the city employee answered. “But it’s empty. Bethlehem Steel closed years ago.”

Martin Tower, Eighth Avenue and Eaton Avenue, Bethlehem Steel Corp. world headquarters, opened in 1972. During the 1970s, approximately 1,500 worked in Martin Tower.

Bethlehem Steel ended steel-making at its south Bethlehem plant in 1995, filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and vacated Martin Tower in 2003.

At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it’s believed that approximately 1,000 worked in Martin Tower, including Bethlehem Steel employees, and employees of Dun & Bradstreet, which had rented office space there.

The 21-story Martin Tower was demolished in 2019.

Going somewhat on the defensive, the city employee asked, “Why do you want to know?”

“We are professors of engineering at Muhlenberg College. We are doing research on tall buildings, to withstand attacks. You know, like when the airplane flew into the World Trade Center in New York City.”

The second man shifted uncomfortably, glowered at the first man and soon began talking excitedly to him in a foreign language. There was a pause.

The first man, resuming his composure, said, “I mean ... when there was that bombing at the World Trade Center.”

A truck bomb explosion Feb. 26, 1993, in a public parking garage under the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killed six people and injured 1,000.

The Bethlehem City Hall employee fell silent, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. The men looked at her and each other, said no more, turned and left the office.

The employee watched the men walking around Payrow Plaza between City Hall and the Bethlehem Public Library, looking at the “celery stalk” sculpture, “Symbol Of Progress” (1967) by Joseph J. Greenberg.

And then the two men were gone.

A little more than one month later, Sept. 11, 2001, two planes slammed into World Trade Center One and Two, a plane exploded into the side of the Pentagon, and a fourth plane, theorized to be heading for the United States Capitol building or the White House, was brought down in a Pennsylvania farm field after passengers resisted the hijackers.

Four coordinated attacks by Wahhabi Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda happened on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes.

The first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan at 8:46 a.m.

The second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, was flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m.

The 110-story towers collapsed within one hour and 45 minutes, causing other World Trade Center structures to fall, including 7 World Trade Center, and damaging area buildings.

The third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was flown into the west side of the Pentagon, Arlington County, Va., resulting in a partial collapse of the side of the building, at 9:37 a.m.

The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was flown in the direction of Washington, D.C., but crashed in a farm field in Stonycreek Township, near Schanksville, Somerset County, at 10:03 a.m.

The Bethlehem city employee later wondered if the two men at City Hall were on a reconnaissance mission with Martin Tower as a possible target of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The story of the two men who appeared in Bethlehem 20 years ago the month before 9/11 has been a mystery ever since, the lore of legend, some say. It has never been reported in print until now. The report of the men visiting Bethlehem City Center in August 2001 was confirmed with three sources familiar with the anecdote.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, access to the Bethlehem City Hall public parking garage was blocked. Increased security measures followed.

Was Martin Tower considered as a target by 9/11 terrorists?

One theory is that Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, could have held symbolic significance because of its namesake, Bethlehem, Israel, birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The Moravian Christian missionary, Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, legend has it, chose the city’s name Christmas Eve 1741, from the lyrics to a hymn:, “Not Jerusalem, lowly Bethlehem ‘twas that gave us.”

The 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center was planned by Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Mohammad Salameh, Nidal A. Ayyad, Abdul Rahman Yasin, Ahmed Ajaj, and Eyad Ismoil, who drove the truck. They were financed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Yousef’s uncle, considered principal architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Ramzi Yousef was at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan before planning a bombing attack in the United States.

Yousef hoped the 1993 truck bomb explosion would topple Tower 1 into Tower 2, killing those inside as revenge for United States’ support for Israel against Palestine.

Yousef mailed letters to New York newspapers, demanding an end to United States aid and diplomatic relations with Israel, and a pledge by the United States to end interference “with any of the Middle East countries’ interior affairs.” Yousef fled to Pakistan after the World Trade Center truck bombing.

In the movie, “United 93” (2006), the soundtrack includes mention of “Allentown,” aka the control tower at Lehigh Valley International Airport, as the plane heads west into infamy. The plane could have easily veered toward Bethlehem.

The 9/11 attacks resulted in 2,996 fatalities, more than 25,000 injuries, the death of 340 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers, long-term health consequences, and $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage. It is the deadliest terrorist attack in history.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the United States launched the War on Terror, invading Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban, which had not complied with U.S. demands to expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. After evading capture for almost a decade, bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 2, 2011, by U.S. Navy SEALS.

One World Trade Center opened in November 2014. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York City, opened Sept. 11, 2011; Pentagon Memorial, Arlington County, Va., opened Sept. 11, 2008, and the Flight 93 National Memorial, Shanksville, opened Sept. 10, 2011.

The United States fought the Afghanistan and Iraq wars simultaneously between 2002 and 2011. The United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history, ended Aug. 31.

Based on the Brown University Cost of War project, deaths in the war in Afghanistan through April were: U.S, service members, 2,448; U.S. contractors, 3,846; Afghan national military and police, 66,000; Allied service members, including NATO, 1,144; Afghan civilians, 47,245; Taliban and opposition fighters, 51,191; aid workers, 444, and journalists, 72.

The cost of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, in United States’ debt financing as of 2020, is $2 trillion. It’s estimated that United States’ health-care, disability, burial and other costs for 4 million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans will cost more than $2 trillion.

With the return of control of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and the rise of The Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), which claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 Kabul Airport suicide attack in which 13 U.S. troops and 200 Afghans died, Afghanistan, which was a safe haven for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is again seen as a hotbed for terrorism.

PRESS PHOTO BY DANA GRUBB Martin Tower, Eighth Avenue and Eaton Avenue. The view is along Eighth Avenue to southeast toward Rt. 378 in aerial photo from 2014. Martin Tower was demolished in 2019.
PRESS PHOTO BY DANA GRUBB “Symbol Of Progress” (1967), sculpture by Joseph J. Greenberg, Payrow Plaza, Bethlehem. The Bethlehem Public library is to the west of the sculpture.