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December 25, 2001

THE TOWERS

Experts Urging Broader Inquiry in Towers' Fall

By JAMES GLANZ and ERIC LIPTON
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The Buildings: Why Trade Center Towers Stood, Then Fell (November 11, 2001)


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Saying that the current investigation into how and why the twin towers fell on Sept. 11 is inadequate, some of the nation's leading structural engineers and fire-safety experts are calling for a new, independent and better-financed inquiry that could produce the kinds of conclusions vital for skyscrapers and future buildings nationwide.

Senator Charles E. Schumer and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of New York, have joined the call for a wider look into the collapses. In an interview on Friday, Mr. Schumer said he supported a new investigation "not so much to find blame" for the collapse of the buildings under extraordinary circumstances, "but rather so that we can prepare better for the future."

"It could affect building practices," he said. "It could affect evacuation practices. We live in a new world and everything has to be recalibrated."

Experts critical of the current effort, including some of those people who are actually conducting it, cite the lack of meaningful financial support and poor coordination with the agencies cleaning up the disaster site. They point out that the current team of 20 or so investigators has no subpoena power and little staff support and has even been unable to obtain basic information like detailed blueprints of the buildings that collapsed.

While agreeing that any building hit by a jetliner would suffer potentially devastating damage, experts want to examine whether the twin towers may have had hidden vulnerabilities that contributed to their collapse.

The lightweight steel trusses that supported the tower's individual floors, the connections between the trusses and the buildings' vertical structural columns, as well as possible flaws in the fireproofing have been drawing scrutiny from fire safety consultants and engineers in recent weeks.

"Two buildings came down," said Joseph F. Russo, director of the Center for Fire Safety Engineering at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, referring to the twin towers. "That suggests some degree of predictability."

"And if it was predictable," Mr. Russo said, "was it preventable?"

Family members of some victims have added their voices to the calls for a wider investigation.

The exact scope of an expanded inquiry has not been defined. But the central desire is to learn any lessons that might be hidden in the rubble and to pinpoint the exact sequence and cause of the collapse, regardless of whether it was inevitable from the moment the planes struck, members of the investigative team and others said.

In calling for a new investigation, some structural engineers have said that one serious mistake has already been made in the chaotic aftermath of the collapses: the decision to rapidly recycle the steel columns, beams and trusses that held up the buildings. That may have cost investigators some of their most direct physical evidence with which to try to piece together an answer.

Officials in the mayor's office declined to reply to written and oral requests for comment over a three- day period about who decided to recycle the steel and the concern that the decision might be handicapping the investigation.

"The city considered it reasonable to have recovered structural steel recycled," said Matthew G. Monahan, a spokesman for the city's Department of Design and Construction, which is in charge of debris removal at the site.

"Hindsight is always 20-20, but this was a calamity like no other," said Mr. Monahan, who was designated by the mayor's office to respond to questions about the investigation. "And I'm not trying to backpedal from the decision."

Interviews with a handful of members of the team, which includes some of the nation's most respected engineers, also uncovered complaints that they had at various times been shackled with bureaucratic restrictions that prevented them from interviewing witnesses, examining the disaster site and requesting crucial information like recorded distress calls to the police and fire departments.

The investigation, organized immediately after Sept. 11 by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the field's leading professional organization, has been financed and administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A mismatch between the federal agency and senior engineers accustomed to bypassing protocol in favor of quick answers has been identified as a clear point of friction.

"This is almost the dream team of engineers in the country working on this, and our hands are tied," said one team member who asked not to be identified. Members have been threatened with dismissal for speaking to the press.

"FEMA is controlling everything," the team member said. "It sounds funny, but just give us the money and let us do it, and get the politics out of it."

A spokesman for FEMA, John Czwartacki, said the agency's primary mission was to help victims, emergency workers and to speed the city's recovery, and added, "We are not an investigative agency."

But given the assignment to examine the structural failures at the World Trade Center, the agency has so far spent roughly $100,000 and Mr. Czwartacki said that more financing could be expected after the group produced what he called an "interim document" in the spring.

"I've heard the calls for the N.T.S.B.-style investigation," Mr. Czwartacki said, referring to appeals by engineers and some families of trade center victim for an exhaustive examination like those done by the National Transportation Safety Board when a plane crashes. "I don't think this study will do it for them."

Mr. Czwartacki added that it was premature to comment on whether team members were receiving necessary information because the study has not been completed. Regardless of what any investigation might find, it is unclear how many civilian lives would have been saved if the buildings had not collapsed, because so many died on the burning upper floors.

Despite the universe of unknowns, the calls for more extensive investigations of various kinds are coming from engineers, fire experts and professional organizations in New York and across the nation.

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