Benchmarking 9/11: Terrorism, Hurricanes, and Climate-Change Challenges

Sept. 3, 2008
The building industry must look ahead and press forward with visionary and pragmatic initiatives that will enhance the built environment and protect public safety and national security.

Sept. 11, 2001, will always be a benchmark for New Yorkers, Americans, and global citizens. From remembering the brave and innocent people who died, and the failures of government to connect the dots on actionable intelligence, to confronting the realities of global terrorism and understanding how to make buildings and communities safer places to live and work, 9/11 will remain a time to reflect on the attacks of 2001, what went wrong, and what can be done to get it right.

The collapse of the World Trade Center was the worst building disaster in recorded history, killing about 2,800 people. Significantly, more than 350 fire and emergency responders were among those who perished, representing the largest loss of life for first responders in a single incident. For design professionals, building owners, insurers, emergency-response agencies, and elected and public officials, these statistics have prompted widespread examination of safety, security, and operational procedures to mitigate future risk.

September is also hurricane season, and the memories of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 remain fresh, especially as Hurricane Gustav (and others) takes aim at the recovering Gulf Coast. Based on 2008 media coverage, local, state, and federal officials felt the brunt of 3 years of unrelenting public and media scrutiny, not to mention 1,600 deaths and widespread destruction. They made a concerted effort to evacuate the area, plan, and respond to the oncoming storm. Even the opening events of the Republican Convention were curtailed to remain focused on the disaster or, more likely, to avoid inappropriate photo opportunities. Fortunately, the storm was not as bad as predicted; however, this time around, the public saw a far more coordinated and subdued disaster response from government than in 2005.

The August 2007 collapse of the I-35 Bridge in Minnesota prompted a wake-up call for transportation and infrastructure inspections across the United States. In September 2007, I wrote "Public Safety, National Security: America's 21st-Century Infrastructure Agenda," calling for a national leadership on rebuilding America's infrastructure. The bridge was repaired promptly, a few national leaders called for emphasis on infrastructure funding and policy. One year later, in the heat of a national presidential election during wartime, rising energy costs, and a host of economic concerns, infrastructure and maintenance are not on the front burner.

Why World Trade Center 7 Fell
In late August 2008, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released the draft final reports on World Trade Center 7 (WTC7). These include why the building collapsed; structural and fire response, and probable collapse sequence; and the global structural analysis of the response of WTC7.

A tremendous amount of information documenting the analysis through computer simulations and research went into this 6-year, taxpayer-funded effort covering the events of 9/11 at the WTC, available at The findings of the 3-year building and fire investigation indicate that WTC7 collapsed due to fire-induced progressive collapse.

To blunt Internet rumors and dispel rampant conspiracy theories about an inside job, controlled demolition, and carefully placed explosives in WTC7, which I have been asked about on several occasions from reasonable people, the findings state there was no evidence of explosives at WTC7.

According to Dr. Shyam Sunder, NIST WTC lead investigator, even the smallest charge required to bring down the 47-story high-rise would've generated a sound of 120 to 130 decibels, heard up to one-half of a mile away. There is no evidence of that in videos or data, or from witnesses. The NIST online video contains dramatic footage of the WTC and the WTC7 collapsing, along with computer modeling to support the conclusions.

Furthermore, says NIST, the building's design was consistent with the relevant building codes at the time when the structure was designed and built (around the late 1960s to early 1970s); however, it should be noted that the WTC owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as a state agency, was exempt from local New York City building codes.

Falling debris from the adjacent Twin Towers caused the fires in WTC7, and a break in the city water main disabled sprinklers in the building, further exacerbating the conditions inside. Ultimately, Sunder advises that stronger codes, standards, and practices are needed so that other buildings, especially those with long-span floors and similar construction to WTC7, don't meet the same fate.

Addressing Threats
Increased awareness about the need for enhanced design, fire safety, and egress systems within the building industry is a positive outcome from a catastrophic event. Code organizations, building owners, and design professionals may take issue with some of the specific recommendations contained in the report, but that shouldn't prevent or curtail the effort to carefully review life-safety measures in buildings that may be in danger of imminent collapse, whether from fire, blast, or natural disasters.

Global events that continue to indicate the threat of terrorism remain real. Iconic buildings and infrastructure, symbolic of democracy, freedom, and a free economy, remain potential targets to those who seek to advance their extreme causes. Natural disasters will happen every year. Climate change will have an untold impact on safety and security of nations and communities, and several countries, such as Canada and the U.K., are examining what this will mean to their populations and resources.

The building industry, and its major professional organizations, must continue to look ahead and press forward with visionary and pragmatic initiatives that will enhance the built environment and protect public safety and national security.

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