Saturday, May 3, 2008

Clash of Past, Present and Future Offers Context

Glenn Corbett speaking in front of a class at NYU's Department of Journalism

Photo by Mike Weiss

By Jonathan Starkey

New York, May 2 - Glenn Corbett was driving north on the New Jersey turnpike just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

A professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, Corbett was taking his normal route toward the park-and-ride in North Bergen, N.J., to catch a Manhattan-bound bus when he saw smoke billowing from a building Downtown. The A.M. radio station Corbett checked for news was ominously silent. Once parked, Corbett boarded the bus and traveled about a mile east before the bus was stopped by officers blocking the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Another park-and-ride bus had just made it through to New Jersey. Then, no traffic was allowed in or out of Manhattan. The city had been cordoned off by the officers. Corbett boarded the outbound bus that had stopped to pick up passengers, knowing nothing except that there was a major fire Downtown."I just went back to my firehouse because I didn't know what we would be doing," said Corbett, also a volunteer firefighter in Waldwick, N.J. "Some of the firefighters knew it immediately it was a terrorist attack."

This story, relying heavily on a 2005 report issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, is meant to serve as a baseline for others that follow on this site. It is, simply, an introduction to issues investigated for this group of stories about skyscraper safety in New York City in the post-9/11 era.

In 1962, the Port of New York Authority awarded a contract to Yamasaki and Associates, a Troy, Mich.-based architectural firm led by Monoru Yamasaki, to design the World Trade Center. The centerpiece of the design would be two towers, envisioned as the flagship buildings of Lower Manhattan and, at 110 stories and about 1,350 feet tall each, the tallest buildings in the world.

In 1966, officials broke ground at the site. Construction would begin in 1968. On Dec. 6, 1968, New York City adopted new building codes that relaxed regulations related, among others, to stairwells and fireproofing, some of which had been in place since the adoption of codes after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Greenwich Village. Locked doors, a lack of stairwells, faulty fire escapes and doors that opened in instead of out had trapped factory workers in the building, leading many to leap to their deaths below. Others died after a fire escape collapsed. In all, 146 factory workers died. The fire led to the first movement to make high-rise buildings safer, not just in New York City, but countrywide. Buildings with more than 2,500 square feet were required to have two staircases, for example, under the new codes. Another staircase was required for each additional floor of 5,000 square feet.

"Less restrictive" is how the NIST report described the 1968 codes, written largely to ease the costs of building Manhattan high-rises. Also, the loss of even a hundred square feet could mean the loss of thousands in annual rent in a high-rise office building. So developers petitioned New York City to relax the codes which they believed, according the NIST report, had not been revised to reflect technological advances. "The developers were arguing you were building bunkers and you've got way more safety than you need and its driving up costs," said Gregory Stein, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and native of Long Island who recently studied the codes for a review published in November of last year. "They may have been right."
The answers included changing requirements for stairwells, requiring only three stairwells instead of six in New York buildings 10 stories and taller. Fire towers, stairwells with additional protection, were no longer required. Doors leading to stairwells were reduced in size to 36 inches, instead of 48 inches in the code that had been comprehensively revised last in 1938. Stairwell width requirements were 44 inches, 22 inches "per unit," unit meaning person, according to the code. Fireproofing standards were also relaxed and spray-on fireproofing was allowed. Structural columns were only required to last 3 hours instead of 4 hours, and floor framing, 2 hours instead of 3 hours.

Under normal circumstances in the city, though, the new code would not have affected the building for World Trade Center. Its plans had been submitted, and construction had begun, before the codes were adopted on Dec. 6. But the land was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which existed outside the jurisdiction of the city and the state. Officials there, recognizing the "less restrictive" requirements in the 1968 code, told its consultants to make that the basis for the construction of the new World Trade Center.

The Twin Towers had stood for about 28 years on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. At 8:48 a.m. that morning, a Boeing 767 – American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston destined for Los Angeles –crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. When another jet - United Airlines Flight 175 with the same departure point and destination – crashed into the south tower 18 minutes later, an accident was all but ruled out. Tragedy played out for most Americans, including Corbett, on network news stations. Workers leaped from windows to escape the fire, and death by entrapment. Horrified onlookers screamed on the street below and told of the horror on network interviews. At 9:50 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, like its feet had been swept out from under it. Networks broadcast the collapse. Thirty-nine minutes later, the north tower came down in a sea of ash that spread like a wave through Lower Manhattan, blanketing it in soot. Countless were dead, to be sure. Others were trapped. Firefighters who had entered the burning building to save those inside were among them. Ultimately, almost 3,000 people were killed, including 343 firefighters and paramedics and 60 police officers.

Corbett said it was a “few weeks” after the attacks on Sept. 11 when he understood the need for an investigation of the collapses. “With the large number of firefighter fatalities, we needed to understand how that happened,” he said.

Just days into October, 2001, Corbett was in his office at John Jay in Manhattan when he received a call from Joe Calderone, the Daily News' chief of investigations. Calderone later wrote an article titled "2 Seek Probe of Collapse," which the Daily News published on Oct. 30. Corbett and Charles Jennings, another professor at John Jay, were the first to call for a private investigation of the collapse. "There are fundamental building and fire safety issues" that need to be investigated, Corbett told the Daily News. "This cuts to the heart of the way buildings are built and how we evacuate them." Corbett later teamed with Sally Regenhard, the mother of a fallen firefighter, as a consultant in her Skyscraper Safety Campaign. The campaign, among other issues, calls for safe development of Port Authority land and more firefighter participation in authoring codes. Corbett and Regenhard helped lobby for the bill that prompted the NIST investigation.

A report issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in September of 2005 told of how the fireproofing had been knocked off of the steel foundation when the jets crashed into both buildings and the fire, fueled by thousands of gallons of jet fuel, caused the floors to sag. The report did not place blame on the codes.

The destruction caused by the planes had rendered useless five of the six stairwells in the buildings. The NIST report said that the separation of the stairwells reduced their ability to evacuate people on higher floors because of the visibility loss related to fire. Deaths were lessened only, the NIST report noted, because the buildings were only one-third to one-half full at the time of the attacks. If the towers had been full, 40,000 people would have been spread throughout both buildings, and up to 14,000 would have been killed. It would have taken three hours to evacuate everyone from the buildings, even without the stairwells destroyed. Of the about 17,400 people spread throughout the buildings at the time of the attack, 87 percent survived, according to the report. Many of the survivors interviewed by NIST investigators cited previous evacuation drills as helpful. Most who survived were below the crash sites at the time of the attacks. Most who were above the crash sites – workers, diners at Windows on the World on floors 106 and 107 of the north tower – were trapped and perished.

Many remain convinced that stricter standards for stairwells and fireproofing could have saved lives. Still others say that preventing an attack of such proportions may be impossible. David A. Lucht was the director of Fire Safety Studies at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts at the time of the attacks. He is now retired. Lucht said most buildings cannot be protected against jets, especially those bound for cross-country trips full of fuel.

"If it weren't for the building being impacted by an airplane, I can't imagine a fire that would have taken it down," Lucht said. "I can't imagine anyone designing a building that would withstand against that. You'd have to stop building them that tall.”

Jonathan Starkey is a graduate student in New York University's department of journalism. He is a member in the first class of the Reporting the Nation Program. Starkey enrolled at NYU after three years as a reporter at two weekly papers and a small daily in Delaware, where he grew up and lived with his wife, Meghan, before moving to New York. His work has appeared in Newsday.

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