The next president of the ICE talks to Building about his role as construction's voice on the New York tragedy, and his passion for his profession.
A confused and frightened world needed guidance on 11 September. For many who saw the tragic events in New York, the shock of watching a jet plough into a skyscraper was secondary to the utter horror of seeing those familiar towers, full of desperate, doomed people, crumple to dust. The first event was beyond comprehension; the second terrifyingly graspable. It shook our faith in concrete and steel.

Who from the construction industry could shed light on such an event? Television chose structural engineer Mark Whitby. That Tuesday afternoon, Whitby was dragged from a meeting at the Institution of Civil Engineers in Westminster and whisked to the TV studios at nearby Millbank.

"I was in there 10 minutes after the thing fell down," he recalls. "From about 3.30 to 8pm, I was completely immersed in it, surrounded by people who were Middle East experts, aeroplane experts, terrorism experts." For the next five hours, as the story unfolded on the newsroom monitors, he gave rolling interviews to Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITN.

Many construction commentators confined themselves to the physical effects of the tragedy. Engineers offered instant technical analysis (much of it "rubbish", according to Whitby) and prominent architects, including Lords Rogers and Foster, sprang to the defence of skyscrapers. Whitby, however, felt his job was to provide a public service.

"It was good to be able to help," he says. "It was really a case of just being there to calm people." He says his first reaction was concern for those who would have been inside and beneath the falling towers. "My piece [to camera] was to pray for miracles," he admits.

On that evening's Channel 4 News, he explained that the collapse was not caused by the impact of the planes but by the resulting kerosine-fuelled inferno, which consumed the structure from the inside. At a time when reports were claiming upwards of 50,000 people in the centre, Whitby pointed out that the structure stayed intact long enough to allow thousands to escape. "It was very important to to make people feel safe, to get as many as possible thinking, 'I'd have a chance of escaping'; to say, 'one building behaved very, very well and one behaved reasonably well'. Lots of people escaped."

Whitby remains curious as to why this has been overlooked. "We've never actually heard how many people were there. It's quite odd, isn't it? I imagine up to 20,000 people escaped."

Before the tragedy Whitby, a director of consulting engineer Whitby Bird & Partners, was already one of the media's favourite engineers, with a gift for showmanship rare in the profession. Colleagues hold him in high regard: one at Arup says that when others publicly revelled in the firm's embarrassment over the Millennium Bridge, Whitby used his TV appearance to say that no engineer could have predicted the wobble. In the media scramble following the disaster, Arup referred many enquiries to Whitby.

It was important to make people feel safe, to get them thinking ‘I’d have a chance of escaping’

The ICE man cometh
I caught up with Whitby at his offices in Fitzrovia, central London, on a wet evening two weeks after the atrocity. He looks a decade younger than his 51 years; his face is tanned and unlined, though his thick brown curls are thinning slightly at the temples and silvering over at the ears. And boy, can he talk: never boring, sometimes tangential, always using the simplest layman's terms, he embarks on a compelling journey through the twin towers' collapse, his love of engineering and his vegetable-growing prowess until my tape recorder's batteries give up.

There is a second context to the interview: next month, Whitby takes up the presidency of the ICE. Inevitably, his tenure will coincide with a period of soul-searching, but again, Whitby is conscious of the need to serve the public.

He will be out there kissing babies, he jokes, performing "an outward-facing role rather than worrying about the management of the institution".

In terms of the New York tragedy, this means trying to shift the public's attention away from skyscrapers. "It's completely the wrong reaction to a risk that is very, very small – although it has to be made smaller. The future is much more about making it impossible to use a plane as a weapon. Why can't we make it impossible for planes to fly into buildings?"

Whitby accepts that structural issues, such as escape towers, building cores and security, will need to be rethought. He also believes that the era of the corporate trophy tower may be over. "They're making themselves vulnerable; they're making themselves a target. That's not good business for all sorts of reasons, not just terrorist planes."

Institutions such as the ICE, he continues, exist to share knowledge. He believes experts from all disciplines should combine forces to understand the World Trade Centre disaster. "There's no point having a conference for structural engineers to talk about high-rise buildings; you ought to have fire engineers, lift engineers, services engineers and so on, so you're likely to have joined-up thinking. We've got to think about making the institutions more multidisciplinary."

Personal effects

Who’s in your family?
My wife Janet and I have four kids aged between two and nine, and an 18-year-old son from a previous marriage.
What car do you drive?
A Mercedes estate with 120,000 miles on the clock. It’s not very sustainable, it does 25 mpg and it looks like a Russian taxi. I’m not one for status symbols.
Where do you go on holiday?
We have a cottage in the woods near the sea in Suffolk. We’re near a lovely group of people there, including Max Fordham and Frank Duffy.
What are your hobbies?
Running marathons and growing onions and potatoes. My pièce de résistance in the kitchen is onion soup. You won’t taste better.