Study of WTC collapse far from over

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  May 1, 2002 at 7:53 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 1 (UPI) -- The first study of the factors behind the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and nearby buildings on Sept. 11 raised far more questions than it answered, witnesses at a House hearing said Wednesday.

Members of the House Science Committee both praised and criticized the building performance study commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said the report offered little comfort to victims' families, especially because researchers faced so many obstacles they failed to get to much of the steel debris -- and many clues to the collapse -- before the scrap was recycled.

"This amounts to a crime scene investigation, yet there is no smoking gun," Weiner said. "There was no weapon found, there weren't even fingerprints taken and if truth be told, there wasn't even a detective assigned to the case until very late in the process."

The FEMA investigation, run by experts from the American Society of Civil Engineers, found that secondary fires started by the hijacked airliners' impacts into the two towers -- not the impacts themselves -- led to the towers' collapse. The finding was spurred by evidence of fire in the 7 World Trade Center building, which also collapsed, said Gene Corley, the ASCE member who led the study. That blaze, probably started by hot debris from the tower and possibly fed by diesel fuel from backup generators in the building, apparently weakened key structural supports in 7 WTC until it collapsed, he said.

But preliminary findings require much more extensive research before they can be turned into building code and design recommendations, said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the committee chairman. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is eminently suited to address the "almost unlimited universe of questions" the study raised, but does not have the luxury of time or limitless funds to find the answers, he said.

"The investigation can't be driven by mere curiosity or political pressures," Boehlert said. "It has to be driven by the desire to save the maximum number of lives in the future, and to making the changes needed to save those lives as rapidly as possible."

Boehlert and Weiner are co-sponsoring legislation to give NIST the legal authority, including subpoena powers, that many say are essential to conduct a proper investigation. The bill uses the National Transportation Safety Board as a model for a construction safety organization within NIST.

Boehlert expects to introduce the bill in the House in a few days and a companion measure in the Senate already has the support of New York's Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton.

Arden Bement, NIST's director, said the FEMA study uncovered several singular sources of information on how structures behave during disasters. That information will provide NIST investigators with several avenues to explore, he said.

"We believe strongly that the results of such an investigation could lead to major changes in both U.S. building and fire codes and in engineering practice, despite the unique design features or circumstances under which the buildings collapsed," Bement told the committee.

The Bush administration has requested $16 million to fund the beginnings of NIST's multi-year research plan, but committee members questioned whether the money could even scratch the surface of the issues needing study. The institute is using available funds to get the process started in any case, Bement told the committee, confirming the accuracy of members' $30- to $40-million cost estimates for the entire project.

The FEMA study's preliminary recommendations include strengthening the walls of escape stairways and coating steel structures with more robust fire-resistant materials.

Current technology for implementing these ideas could add weight and/or cost to the design of future super skyscrapers, making them less feasible, but Boehlert and Corley both said the changes would not eliminate such designs from consideration. Further study could easily uncover alternative building methods that would satisfy safety concerns without significant weight or cost penalties, Corley said.

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