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Saturday, October 02, 2004

The WTC Collapse: A Crime Scene Never To Be Investigated

The following is a collection of audio and video materials related to the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Among other things, it includes this reference to "WTC 'Investigation'? A Call to Action" by Bill Manning, Editor-in-Chief of Fire Engineering, an American firefighters' professional publication.

In his initial article, Mr Manning calls for a full investigation of the WTC collapse scene.
There are many, many questions to be asked by us about the World Trade Center collapse and its implications on high-rise firefighting across the nation. Some questions are political, many are technical, others are philosophical. Here are a few (in no particular order) to think about.

* Given the typical resources of most fire departments, can we be expected to handle every high-rise fire thrown at us? When was the last time your city manager asked you for a complete list of resources that you need to fight a high-rise fire, including personnel? When was the last time a high-rise building owner asked if you would like him to install a special "firefighter elevator" for your exclusive use during a high-rise fire? When was the last time a building code committee called up a "downtown" battalion chief and asked him what he thought of the unlimited area and height provisions found in all of the model building codes-is it OK if we allow a 400-story building in your battalion, Chief? The bottom line is, Can we really handle high-rise fires adequately? Who are we kidding? Isn't this the "big secret" that Chief Vincent Dunn has been talking about for years?

* Beware the truss! Frank Brannigan has been admonishing us for years about this topic. It has been reported that the World Trade Center floors were supported by lightweight steel trusses, some in excess of 50 feet long. Need we say more?

* Modern sprayed-on steel "fireproofing" did not perform well at the World Trade Center. Haven't we always been leery about these materials? Why do many firefighters say that they would rather fight a high-rise fire in an old building than in a modern one? Isn't it because of the level of fire resistance provided? How much confidence do we have in the ASTM E-119 fire resistance test, whose test criteria were developed in the 1920s? ASTM E-119 is an antiquated test whose criteria for fire resistance do not replicate today's fires.

* The defend-in-place strategy was the wrong strategy at the World Trade Center. Many of those who ignored the directions to "stay where you are" are alive today because they self-evacuated. Do you still use defend-in-place strategies for large high-rise fires? When should you use them, and when should you not?

* We can see live broadcasts from Afghanistan, but we can't communicate via radios in many high-rise buildings. What gives?

There are many more questions, more than we have answers for. What is clear is that things must change. Where do we begin? By putting things in perspective. The World Trade Center disaster was

* The largest loss of firefighters ever at one incident.
* The second largest loss of life on American soil.
* The first total collapse of a high-rise during a fire in United States history.
* The largest structural collapse in recorded history.

Now, with that understanding, you would think we would have the largest fire investigation in world history. You would be wrong. Instead, we have a series of unconnected and uncoordinated superficial inquiries. No comprehensive "Presidential Blue Ribbon Commission." No top-notch National Transportation Safety Board-like response. Ironically, we will probably gain more detailed information about the destruction of the planes than we will about the destruction of the towers. We are literally treating the steel removed from the site like garbage, not like crucial fire scene evidence.

The World Trade Center disaster demands the most comprehensive detailed investigation possible. No event in our entire fire service history has ever come close to the magnitude of this incident.
Both Fire Engineering articles date back to January 2002. It was by then already clear to the fire professionals that there was nothing resembling a proper investigation taking place. In fact, in this accompanying article Mr Manning condemns what was happening at the WTC scene in no uncertain terms as he tries to draw parralels to other high-profile fires.
Did they throw away the locked doors from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire? Did they throw away the gas can used at the Happyland Social Club Fire? Did they cast aside the pressure-regulating valves at the Meridian Plaza Fire? Of course not. But essentially, that's what they're doing at the World Trade Center.

For more than three months, structural steel from the World Trade Center has been and continues to be cut up and sold for scrap. Crucial evidence that could answer many questions about high-rise building design practices and performance under fire conditions is on the slow boat to China, perhaps never to be seen again in America until you buy your next car.

Such destruction of evidence shows the astounding ignorance of government officials to the value of a thorough, scientific investigation of the largest fire-induced collapse in world history. I have combed through our national standard for fire investigation, NFPA 921, but nowhere in it does one find an exemption allowing the destruction of evidence for buildings over 10 stories tall.

Hoping beyond hope, I have called experts to ask if the towers were the only high-rise buildings in America of lightweight, center-core construction. No such luck. I made other calls asking if these were the only buildings in America with light-density, sprayed-on fireproofing. Again, no luck-they were two of thousands that fit the description.

Comprehensive disaster investigations mean increased safety. They mean positive change. NASA knows it. The NTSB knows it. Does FEMA know it?

No. Fire Engineering has good reason to believe that the "official investigation" blessed by FEMA and run by the American Society of Civil Engineers is a half-baked farce that may already have been commandeered by political forces whose primary interests, to put it mildly, lie far afield of full disclosure. Except for the marginal benefit obtained from a three-day, visual walk-through of evidence sites conducted by ASCE investigation committee members- described by one close source as a "tourist trip"-no one's checking the evidence for anything.
When an arson or a murder occurs, it is routine procedure to thoroughly investigate the scene. Apparently, not so when an arson takes close to 3,000 lives.

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