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The Design Flaw That Almost Wiped Out an NYC Skyscraper

timothy posted about 4 months ago | from the let's-not-blow-this-out-of-proportion dept.

Technology 183

Hugh Pickens DOT Com (2995471) writes "Joel Werner writes in Slate that when Citicorp Center was built in 1977 it was, at 59 stories, the seventh-tallest building in the world but no one figured out until after it was built that although the chief structural engineer, William LeMessurier, had properly accounted for perpendicular winds, the building was particularly vulnerable to quartering winds — in part due to cost-saving changes made to the original plan by the contractor. "According to LeMessurier, in 1978 an undergraduate architecture student contacted him with a bold claim about LeMessurier's building: that Citicorp Center could blow over in the wind," writes Werner. "LeMessurier realized that a major storm could cause a blackout and render the tuned mass damper inoperable. Without the tuned mass damper, LeMessurier calculated that a storm powerful enough to take out the building hit New York every 16 years." In other words, for every year Citicorp Center was standing, there was about a 1-in-16 chance that it would collapse." (Read on for more.)Pickens continues: "LeMessurier and his team worked with Citicorp to coordinate emergency repairs. With the help of the NYPD, they worked out an evacuation plan spanning a 10-block radius. They had 2,500 Red Cross volunteers on standby, and three different weather services employed 24/7 to keep an eye on potential windstorms. Work began immediately, and continued around the clock for three months. Welders worked all night and quit at daybreak, just as the building occupants returned to work. But all of this happened in secret, even as Hurricane Ella, the strongest hurricane on record in Canadian waters, was racing up the eastern seaboard. The hurricane became stationary for about 24 hours, and later turned to the northeast away from the coast. Hurricane Ella never made landfall. And so the public—including the building's occupants—were never notified.

Until his death in 2007, LeMessurier talked about the summer of 1978 to his classes at Harvard. The tale, as he told it, is by turns painful, self-deprecating, and self-dramatizing--an engineer who did the right thing. But it also speaks to the larger question of how professional people should behave. "You have a social obligation," LeMessurier reminded his students. "In return for getting a license and being regarded with respect, you're supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of yourself and your client to society as a whole.""

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Dupe (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794495)

Oh wait, I read it on HackerNews.

Re:Dupe (1)

kthreadd (1558445) | about 4 months ago | (#46794605)

Since this happened in the 70s some of us have actually heard about this plenty of times by now. =D

Re:Dupe (4, Informative)

pepty (1976012) | about 4 months ago | (#46795223)

Three different sources, four different versions of the events (the Slashdot summary cobbles together its own take). I wonder which version is closest to the truth?

Damninteresting:

Diane Hartley contacted him to ask some technical questions about the design, which he was delighted to address. Hartley's professor had expressed doubts regarding the strength of a stilted skyscraper where the support columns were not on the corners. ... But the conversation got him thinking, and he started doing some calculations on just how much diagonal wind the structure could withstand. He was particularly interested in the effects of an engineering change made during construction which had seemed benign at the time: numerous joints were secured with bolts rather than welds.

Slate:

According to LeMessurier, in 1978 an undergraduate architecture student contacted him with a bold claim about LeMessurier’s building: that Citicorp Center could blow over in the wind. The student (who has since been lost to history) was studying Citicorp Center and had found that the building was particularly vulnerable to quartering winds (winds that strike the building at its corners). Normally, buildings are strongest at their corners, and it’s the perpendicular winds (winds that strike the building at its faces) that cause the greatest strain. But this was not a normal building. LeMessurier had accounted for the perpendicular winds, but not the quartering winds. He checked the math and found that the student was right. He compared what velocity winds the building could withstand with weather data and found that a storm strong enough to topple Citicorp Center hits New York City every 55 years. But that’s only if the tuned mass damper, which keeps the building stable, is running. LeMessurier realized that a major storm could cause a blackout and render the tuned mass damper inoperable. Without the tuned mass damper, LeMessurier calculated that a storm powerful enough to take out the building his New York every 16 years.

people.duke.edu:

The student wondered about the columns--there are four--that held the building up. According to his professor, LeMessurier had put them in the wrong place. "I was very nice to this young man," LeMessurier recalls. "But I said, 'Listen, I want you to tell your teacher that he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, because he doesn't know the problem that had to be solved.' I promised to call back after my meeting and explain the whole thing." When LeMessurier called the student back, he related this with the pride of a master builder and the elaborate patience of a pedagogue; he, too, taught a structural-engineering class, to architecture students at Harvard. Then he explained how the peculiar geometry of the building, far from constituting a mistake, put the columns in the strongest position to resist what sailors call quartering winds--those which come from a diagonal and, by flowing across two sides of a building at once, increase the forces on both. For further enlightenment on the matter, he referred the student to a technical article written by LeMessurier's partner in New York, an engineer named Stanley Goldstein. LeMessurier recalls, "I gave him a lot of information, and I said, 'Now you really have something on your professor, because you can explain all of this to him yourself.'"

...

LeMessurier had long since established the strength of those braces in perpendicular winds--the only calculation required by New York City's building code. Now, in the spirit of intellectual play, he wanted to see if they were just as strong in winds hitting from forty-five degrees. His new calculations surprised him. In four of the eight chevrons in each tier, a quartering wind increased the strain by forty per cent. Under normal circumstances, the wind braces would have absorbed the extra load without so much as a tremor. But the circumstances were not normal. A few weeks before, during a meeting in his office, LeMessurier had learned of a crucial change in the way the braces were joined.

Cost-saving is the key here (-1, Flamebait)

RogueWarrior65 (678876) | about 4 months ago | (#46794501)

Clearly, the contractor was stupid and more interested in saving money than doing it correctly. The same goes for any politician that decides to alter a design for reasons such as being able to say that a bridge will be the longest span in history.

That has happened quite often here in the US. (5, Interesting)

mmell (832646) | about 4 months ago | (#46794755)

I've heard news reporting before on this subject. The way it goes is this: the architect submits his designs, which are subject to review. Once the green light's given, construction begins. Now, engineers on the project notice a way that they can cut costs or construction time, or somebody requests a modification to the original design (perhaps to add a restroom or breakroom, perhaps to add or remove a wall or subdivide a floor differently). The new design is not subject to the same kind of rigorous evaluation the original had to go through - and why should it? The changes are evaluated in some detail, but a less detailed examination is given to effects these changes may have on the overall design. Often, the change is something which has been done before on other similar projects, or is done to take advantage of a new technique or material which wasn't widely available during the initial design review. Sometimes these changes are a direct result to the contractor's real-world experience with similar projects. Add to this the possibility that contractors on the job - who have some amount of expertise in this area - may decide on the use of 'equivalent' materials and techniques; using a new adhesive or other material which has superior properties or costs less but is not identical to the original item.

I wish I could find an appropriate citation - the example I recall was a bridge which needed to be torn apart and repaired because of the use of a different type of bolt securing the framework. The replacement had similar tensile and shearing strength, but several years later the bolts started failing at a much higher than expected rate, requiring the bridge to be retrofitted with the original fastener. It turned out that the new bolt (while actually stronger in some respects than originally required) was subject to vibration stresses. The review permitting the substitution focused on the strength of the bolt required for the application, but the data showing that the bolt was subject to metal fatigue if subjected to extended vibration wasn't available or considered at that time.

Changes such as these are actually not too rare; I suspect that in most cases, the substitutions work exactly as expected, but when we're discussing infrastructure elements of this scope a single failure is not merely troublesome but often catastrophic.

TooLazyToLogIn (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795079)

Might this be what you were perhaps remembering? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Dig_ceiling_collapse ? Was the "good enough" epoxy that ultimately caused the issue.

Kansas City Hyatt Regency Skywalk (5, Interesting)

careysub (976506) | about 4 months ago | (#46795085)

I've heard news reporting before on this subject. The way it goes is this: the architect submits his designs, which are subject to review. Once the green light's given, construction begins. Now, engineers on the project notice a way that they can cut costs or construction time, or somebody requests a modification to the original design (perhaps to add a restroom or breakroom, perhaps to add or remove a wall or subdivide a floor differently). ... I wish I could find an appropriate citation ...

The Kansas City Hyatt Regency Skywalk disaster [wikipedia.org] , 17 July 17 1981, is an excellent case study. Before the collapse of the WTC South Tower it was the deadiest structural collapse in U.S. histories (dam failures are another story entirely). Until 9-11 the CitiCorp Center was well placed to beat it.

In the Hyatt Regency case the design of the double skywalk was changed during constructution, replacing a continuous steel rod that supported both skywalks with two rods, one from the roof to the upper skywalk, and one from the upper skywalk to the lower. Problem was the design had the continuous rod bearing the full load, the change made the upper skywalk bear the load of the lower skywalk (and the people on it) when it was only supposed to be holding up people on the upper skywalk and nothing else.

As built the skywalk was so overloaded that eventual collapse was possible even without any load. Naturally when it did fail it would be at a time when both the upper and lower skywalks were heavily loaded with people, and the floor crowded below. 114 died, 216 were injured - many seriously.

Re:That has happened quite often here in the US. (2)

delta98 (619010) | about 4 months ago | (#46795139)

Consider the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H... [wikipedia.org] The design was very diffrent from the actual construction.

Re:That has happened quite often here in the US. (1)

delta98 (619010) | about 4 months ago | (#46795153)

crap. I didnt post right. I ment the Kansas mall walkway.

I agree. My takeaway point is . . . (2)

mmell (832646) | about 4 months ago | (#46795249)

Nobody reevaluated the design of the entire pair of buildings. In this instance, even the review of the changes was flawed. If it hadn't been - if the change itself hadn't been fatally flawed - I wonder if they wouldn't have compromised the design of the entire (now unified) structure by moving stresses from their original positions?

They treated the walkways as a 'black box' condition. It didn't matter to the buildings being connected if it was done using one support rod or two, from the standpoint of the two buildings there was no difference. Thus, only the walkways themselves were affected by the change, and that's the only element they reviewed at length. Obviously, even that review failed terribly, overlooking something which seems in retrospect to be obvious.

I'm sure you (and most other /. readers) already appreciate the flaw in this sort of logic. I'm not saying that every change needs to put the review process back at square one, but rather that changes need to be reviewed in more than the narrow context of the single element being changed. It wouldn't have helped here (and I'm neither an architect nor a construction engineer), but it just might have. "Hey - all of your stresses from those two walkways are coming in on this one rod - is my building going to take it?" followed by "Damn, you're right. Our walkways will both be loading up that one rod. Lemme think about that..."

Re:I agree. My takeaway point is . . . (1)

delta98 (619010) | about 4 months ago | (#46795389)

Good point. The real problem in context to the walkway was a very fundamental change.Very long support rods vs short segmented support per floor. But as I read and I think you aare correct we as humans really don't think like that. If I had mods I bump you up.

Re:That has happened quite often here in the US. (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795385)

structural engineer here. couldn't let the idea that an architect is responsible for the primary structure of a building slip by.......

Traditionally, an architect's remit is in with the form and function of a structure in accordance with a client's wishes (+ understanding of basic building regs on fire, acoustics, M&E strategies etc);
it is the structural engineer's job consider and design the physics of a building in meeting the architects intended form.

Depending on the nature of the contract, a main contractor (read builders, rarely design engineers) may influence the design of the building....to make savings usually, or solving buildability issues etc. contractors typically have temporary works engineers, and for a big job may employ a checking engineer to encourage savings etc.

Nuh-uh! (4, Insightful)

Ralph Spoilsport (673134) | about 4 months ago | (#46794505)

"In return for getting a license and being regarded with respect, you're supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of yourself and your client to society as a whole."

No way! This is America! You're supposed to extract as much wealth as you can for yourself! Society as a whole doesn't exist!

So what if the building blows over and kills thousands - I guess we won't buy another building from those guys will we! The market takes care of that sort of thing - it's like magic!

HW

Re:Nuh-uh! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794571)

The market WILL work it out. A engineer with that kind of attitude won't get hired again.

Re:Nuh-uh! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794615)

And all it took is putting the lives of thousands of people in danger!

Re:Nuh-uh! (3, Insightful)

gnupun (752725) | about 4 months ago | (#46794717)

That's assuming all the blame falls (pun not intended) on the engineer. That's kind of a double standard -- if the building is a success, management takes the credit (and profit) for creating it. But if it fails, it's the engineer's fault. The overseers, i.e. management, have to take some or a lot of the blame.

Re:Nuh-uh! (3, Insightful)

qwijibo (101731) | about 4 months ago | (#46794827)

By the time it fails, that's 15 jobs ago for the management. They already got their bonus for short term cost savings and are doing the same thing to bigger and better projects now. There's a reason job hopping is so common in senior management levels.

yes, I've used a Professional Engineer. also a CPA (4, Insightful)

raymorris (2726007) | about 4 months ago | (#46794673)

Yes, it does, pretty well. I've used a PE (Professional Engineer) for exactly that reason - they "sell" trustworthiness, objectivity. The person I bought my house from and I paid the PE precisely because we know they sell the truth, rather than telling either of us what we want to hear.

That's the same thing CPAs sell - the market pays Price Waterhouse Coopers to find the truth, rather than skewing things.

Re:yes, I've used a Professional Engineer. also a (5, Insightful)

Actually, I do RTFA (1058596) | about 4 months ago | (#46794865)

Yeah, I remember how well that worked in the 90's

Remember when Arther Anderson stood up to Enron and refused to sign their books. And in turn sacrificed the lucrative consulting contracts with Enron for only CPA fees.

As opposed to simply adding a footnote disavowing the report before signing it anyway.

Re:yes, I've used a Professional Engineer. also a (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794887)

Arther Anderson also shredded documents when the learn of a federal investigation to discover the truth. Which is illegal, unless you think you've found a non-existent loophole, which then becomes an actual loophole, because you believe it into existence. Ignorance of the law only works when you are rich and connected.

Re:yes, I've used a Professional Engineer. also a (2)

Actually, I do RTFA (1058596) | about 4 months ago | (#46795049)

I thought the shredding was technically legal because it was presubponea

Re:yes, I've used a Professional Engineer. also a (3, Informative)

sjwt (161428) | about 4 months ago | (#46795269)

Thats only if its your general practice and not being done out of the blue *and* you have no reasonable grounds to suspect you may need them..

You can't go 'well I see a court case coming.. I *might* be up for a subpoena, better start shredding'

Re:yes, I've used a Professional Engineer. also a (2)

Shinobi (19308) | about 4 months ago | (#46795141)

Why look there only?

Look at all the software hiding behind various licenses that include clauses to try and escape responsibility?

Many EULA's from corps such as Microsoft and Adobe for example. Then there's Open Source licenses such as GPL and BSD.

That's actually an interesting engineering ethics issue: Can you, as a licensed software engineer, in good conscience release software under any license with such clauses, without totally violating your responsibilities and duties as an engineer?

My personal take on it is that no, you can't. Hence, I work as a freelancer, which means I can refuse contracts that would cause such a violation, or leave a project which institutes changes that would cause such a violation. All my contracts have clauses which clearly outline what my responsibilities are as a software engineer, including whistleblowing on unsafe practices.

Re:yes, I've used a Professional Engineer. also a (3, Interesting)

mrchaotica (681592) | about 4 months ago | (#46795333)

What jurisdiction do you live in that actually licenses software engineers?

Re:yes, I've used a Professional Engineer. also a (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794939)

they "sell" trustworthiness, objectivity.

Trustworthiness is not objective.

we know they sell the truth

Truth is not objective either.

Citation [wikipedia.org]

Re:Nuh-uh! (1)

Ichijo (607641) | about 4 months ago | (#46794703)

The insurance premium on that building must have been astronomical until it was fixed!

Re:Nuh-uh! (1)

amiga3D (567632) | about 4 months ago | (#46795013)

You ignore the fact that he can be held criminally liable. Let a skyscraper fall and you're talking casualties in the 5 digit range. There is no way to stop that avalanche of outrage. In fact, I'd be surprised if the engineer didn't have to be taken into protective custody for his own safety. The people responsible for building safety will catch hell too. Catastrophic destruction gets catastrophic response.

Re:Nuh-uh! (1)

Megane (129182) | about 4 months ago | (#46795331)

Example: Hyatt Regency walkway collapse [wikipedia.org]

The contractor made changes to save money. Only in this case they got the PE to sign off on their changes without evaluating them.

numb3rs (2)

edxwelch (600979) | about 4 months ago | (#46794509)

That sounds familiar. Wasn't there an episode of Numb3rs based on that?

Re:numb3rs (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794543)

I'm sorry, but you don't belong here.

Re:numb3rs (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794561)

Yes, there was -- although considerably dramatized. I believe in the Numb3rs version, the student who reported the flaw ended up committing suicide, and the architect responsible for the flaw sternly denied that it existed.

Re:numb3rs (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794721)

Sounds like the 2010's (as opposed to the 1970's).

This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (5, Informative)

Albert Schueller (143949) | about 4 months ago | (#46794533)

It's not clear at all to me why the OP or the editors wouldn't at least mention that this information is taken nearly word-for-word from the really excellent weekly podcast 99% Invisible, so I'm making this comment to get it on the record. Also, here's a gratuitous link to the podcast: http://99percentinvisible.org/ and the episode: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/structural-integrity/

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794583)

At least they got the attribution half right. Usually they claim the summary was written by the submitter. Here they simply left out half the byline from the story. The story itself is very clear it's from 99% Invisible.

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (1)

Albert Schueller (143949) | about 4 months ago | (#46794613)

Did I miss something? Where does it mention 99% invisible?

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (3, Insightful)

Captain Segfault (686912) | about 4 months ago | (#46794817)

In the actual story. You might know it as the thing nobody reads before posting comments.

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (1)

Albert Schueller (143949) | about 4 months ago | (#46794937)

Haha. Found it! Thanks.

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (1)

The Grim Reefer (1162755) | about 4 months ago | (#46794995)

In TFA. You might know it as the thing nobody reads before posting comments.

FTFY.

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794603)

They probably just didn't see it.

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794609)

You don't expect Slate to hire writers to waste time with original research, do you? They need to churn out web content by the truck-load by any means possible.

Not the first to break the story (1)

Jmstuckman (561420) | about 4 months ago | (#46795171)

I don't see it -- the summary was taken word-for-word from a podcast? As in, someone transcripted and submitted it, including the quotes?

That podcast certainly wasn't the first source to report on the Citicorp Center design flaw -- there was article in the New Yorker in 1995 about it ( http://www.newyorker.com/archi... [newyorker.com] ).

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795217)

Um, the very first link to the Slate article mentions in the byline and the first five words 99% Invisible, so I'm not sure what you're complaining about.

Re:This is from the 99% Invisible Podcast. (1)

MikeBabcock (65886) | about 4 months ago | (#46795439)

Its right in the byline at the top of the article so it seems well-covered for those who click-through already. Also, I hate podcasts, so I'm glad they didn't link to that instead.

The Design Flaw That Almost Wiped Out Slashdot.... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794539)

...It's called beta!

Architects (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794549)

This is why architects should (though allowed in many countries) never be let sign off structural computations.

Re:Architects (1)

PPH (736903) | about 4 months ago | (#46794723)

You might niot have parsed the summary correctly. LeMessurier, an engineer, did the structural design. An undergraduate architecture student caught the error.

Re:Architects (1)

Teun (17872) | about 4 months ago | (#46794791)

Uhhh, there was no error, it was wilful cutting costs by simplifying the design by the contractor.

Re:Architects (1)

Stormwatch (703920) | about 4 months ago | (#46795237)

A "simplification of design" that would certainly kill a lot of people counts as an error, no?

Re:Architects (1)

delta98 (619010) | about 4 months ago | (#46795183)

To be fair, it's not nessissarly the Architect sign off as much as it is change management through the construction process. There should always be an open conversation as a project evolves.

Re:Architects (2)

delta98 (619010) | about 4 months ago | (#46795215)

Again I forgot something: a takeaway to me is the fact that instead of finger pointing and litigation there was cooperation and the issue was addressed in as much of a professional manner as could be under the circumstance.

They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (1, Insightful)

Bruce66423 (1678196) | about 4 months ago | (#46794557)

It's interesting to consider that the contractors were able to keep this secret despite its news value. This may challenge those who are against conspiracy theorists: 'The story you're telling would come out'. The Snowden revelations have shown that many hints WERE accurate - but some strongly underestimated what the NSA was up to. Conspiracy theorist 1, others 0 on this one...

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (5, Informative)

frinsore (153020) | about 4 months ago | (#46794681)

If you read the damninteresting.com article in the expanded summary it mentions that no one knew about it because there was a press strike. Wikipedia confirms [wikipedia.org] that all 3 major New York City newspapers were on strike while the building was being repaired.

The repairs were only "secret" because no one was asking questions about it.

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (0)

gl4ss (559668) | about 4 months ago | (#46794783)

press strike! that's brilliant.

I wonder why kim jong il never thought of putting the press on strike.

Press strike? (1)

Bruce66423 (1678196) | about 4 months ago | (#46794811)

So all the newspapers of the USA were closed and no TV stations were broadcasting news? Certainly today it would make a strong story - after all we're resurrecting it after all these years; I'm dubious that the fact that the newspapers of New York were shut would be a such a barrier then.

Re:Press strike? (5, Insightful)

The Grim Reefer (1162755) | about 4 months ago | (#46795063)

So all the newspapers of the USA were closed and no TV stations were broadcasting news? Certainly today it would make a strong story - after all we're resurrecting it after all these years; I'm dubious that the fact that the newspapers of New York were shut would be a such a barrier then.

Those were much different times. There were no 24 hour news channels, no internet, and radio was somewhat different then. Print was just about the only place this kind of thing would have showed up. And since most papers were more focused on the city they were based in, it's unlikely it would be reported in another cities paper. Remember, TV news was an hour, at best, in the evening. Even if it would have ended up on the evening news, it would probably have been mentioned in a 30 second bit at best. There wouldn't have been a 2 hour "special report" on it.

Re:Press strike? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795191)

Now we have 24x7 coverage of fluff and missing jetliners!

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (2)

Shompol (1690084) | about 4 months ago | (#46794711)

Because "do some emergency welding work" and "weld here" is not newsworthy.

I am more curious about what the reply was to the undegrad student and how did they keep him quiet. Also, did he get a congressional medal for saving 1000s of lives?

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794943)

It was "she", and it's already explained in the article.

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (4, Informative)

speederaser (473477) | about 4 months ago | (#46795201)

I am more curious about what the reply was to the undegrad student and how did they keep him quiet.

According to TFA the undergrad student was a she not a he. From the article:

The BBC aired a special on the Citicorp Center crisis, and one of its viewers was Diane Hartley. It turns out that she was the student in LeMessurier's story. She never spoke with LeMessurier; rather, she spoke with one of his junior staffers.

Hartley didn't know that her inquiry about how the building deals with quartering winds led to any action on LeMessurier's part. It was only after seeing the documentary that she began to learn about the impact that her undergraduate thesis had on the fate of Manhattan.

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (1)

Alioth (221270) | about 4 months ago | (#46794713)

But the story DID come out.

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794787)

Um, this story is posted on /. The original architect spoke about the incident regularly and educated thousands of students using it as a lesson. I also remember seeing an entire special on PBS about this incident.

It was only a secret during the remediation phase. They took precautions and simply wanted time to fix the problem without causing unnecessary alarm (the risk to the building was only during very high winds from a specific direction combined with a power outage that would kill their mass damper). In other words, the secrecy was short-term, it had a purpose, the risk wasn't constant, and as soon as the problem was fixed it wasn't a secret anymore.

In my experience most secrets come out eventually. There was even a case of a British royal heir that was likely murdered, a situation that would have endangered the monarch who did it (ordered it done). It took several centuries but they think they've found the body (it was found under a staircase). An example of a secret that was very well hidden but could not be hidden forever.

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (2)

pepty (1976012) | about 4 months ago | (#46795283)

Um, this story is posted on /. The original architect spoke about the incident regularly and educated thousands of students using it as a lesson. I also remember seeing an entire special on PBS about this incident.

It was only a secret during the remediation phase.

According to Slate, the story wasn't public for over 15 years:

The story remained a secret until writer Joe Morgenstern overheard it being told at a party, and interviewed LeMessurier. Morgenstern broke the story in The New Yorker in 1995.

A tidbit that would explain why the city would let them keep it secret and not evacuate during the mediation phase (from the people.duke.edu link):

LeMessurier didn't think an evacuation would be necessary. He believed that the building was safe for occupancy in all but the most violent weather, thanks to the tuned mass damper, and he insisted that the damper's reliability in a storm could be assured by installing emergency generators. Robertson conceded the importance of keeping the damper running--it had performed flawlessly since it became operational earlier that year---but, because, in his view, its value as a safety device was unproved, he flatly refused to consider it as a mitigating factor. (In a conversation shortly after the World Trade Center bombing, Robertson noted dryly that the twin towers' emergency generators "lasted for fifteen minutes.")

They probably believed LeMessurier, not Robertson. As to secrecy after the mediation: standard nondisclose agreements, probably.

Re:They kept it SECRET so lots can be kept secret? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795235)

Helpful hint: the term "conspiracy theorist" was coined by the CIA in an attempt to discredit those who disbelieve the well publicized lies around who killed Kennedy. It's always been a form of ad hominem attack used against people who have a problem with government and corporations lying to us all the time.

Old news (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794565)

is old.

Seriously, Slashdot?

Wow (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794593)

"In return for getting a license and being regarded with respect, you're supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of yourself and your client to society as a whole."

We shall never see his like again in our lifetimes.

Tuned mass damper (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794709)

My understanding is that tuned mass dampers typically act laterally (e.g., N-S or E-W). With quartering winds, though, the motion would be torsional, so the tuned mass damper would not be effective for that mode, would it?

He's anti-capitalist! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794725)

Imagine what happens if all buildings are perfectly safe:
- building insurance companies will DIE
- house insurance companies will DIE
- banks relying on money from those insurance companies will DIE
- private emergency handling companies will DIE
- building-collapse cleanup companies will DIE
- a lot of people lose jobs and get screwed

I'm aware some of such forms of companies never exist for now or never known to public. But imagine all buildings are unsafe and prone to collapse under whatever weather shit:
- you need house insurance companies, they make money and provide jobs
- construction companies need building insurance companies to attract customers, they make money and provide jobs
- banks can get money from those insurance companies and invest elsewhere
- you need private emergency handling companies to rescue you when shit collapse, they make money and provide jobs
- government need building-collapse cleanup companies after shit collapse, they make money and provide jobs
- a lot more people get jobs and live happily afterwards

I'll also add that when your house collapse and you have proper insurance and the private rescue company to save your ass, you also gain more money to buy new houses and get new furniture etc. Everyone wins!

What happened to that undergrad? (5, Insightful)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about 4 months ago | (#46794731)

When did (s)he graduate? Where did (s)he end up? Doesn't (s)he deserve at least a minor credit in this story?

Re:What happened to that undergrad? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794779)

Where did (s)he end up?

If he/she had blown the whistle after 2001, probably a secret prison somewhere.

Re:What happened to that undergrad? (4, Informative)

afgam28 (48611) | about 4 months ago | (#46795069)

I'm not sure what the author means when he says that the student was "lost to history", because at the end of the article he says that it was Diane Hartley.

The BBC aired a special on the Citicorp Center crisis, and one of its viewers was Diane Hartley. It turns out that she was the student in LeMessurier’s story.

Her name is also mentioned in some papers on engineering ethics:

http://www.onlineethics.org/cm... [onlineethics.org]
http://www.theaiatrust.com/whi... [theaiatrust.com]

Re:What happened to that undergrad? (1)

pepty (1976012) | about 4 months ago | (#46795363)

She (Hartley) got varying credit for the story - each version of the story seems to split the amount of insight Hartley, her professor, and LeMessurier contributed to finding the problem differently. Regardless, she didn't find out about her contribution until 20 years later. Depending on the source you read: Her professor raised the issue of quartering winds. She called and talked to one of LeMessurier's staffers about them. LeMessurier called back and explained how he had taken quartering winds into account. Then he decided to recheck his calculations, since he had recently heard about a change in construction (bolts instead of welds). Or (much more newsworthy): Hartley did the calculations herself and told LeMessurier that his building would fall over.

Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794733)

Another engineering fail is the collapse of indoor walkways at a Kansas City hotel. Except the fail actually killed over 100 people:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyatt_Regency_walkway_collapse

Interestingly, the _original_ designs for both the walkways and the Citigroup Center tower case were safe. In both cases contractors requested design changes, and the engineering firms didn't do a proper review when approving them.

Re:Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse (2)

Seraphim1982 (813899) | about 4 months ago | (#46795167)

I don't know about "safe" but the original design for the Hyatt Regency walkway would not have been up to KC's building code.

source [engineering.com]

Missing the obvious? (2)

CanadianRealist (1258974) | about 4 months ago | (#46794757)

I know hindsight is 20/20 but not considering the effect of wind hitting the corners of the building seems unbelievable. With no support at the corners it seems obvious* that the easiest way to cause a failure would be to apply force directed towards a corner. TFA does say that wind at the corners is not usually an issue, but when designing something so radically different you have to consider the effects of those differences.

*For anyone who has ever played with Lego: imagine building something that looks like that building and think of the easiest way to push it over. Consider how you control the direction when felling a tree.

Re:Missing the obvious? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795011)

They did consider it. But the building contractors replaced welded joints with bolts during construction without consulting the architect, which made the structure weaker.

Re:Missing the obvious? (1)

CanadianRealist (1258974) | about 4 months ago | (#46795089)

No, they didn't.

LeMessurier had accounted for the perpendicular winds, but not the quartering winds.

With only the forces of the perpendicular winds considered and reported, the contractor's decision was ok. While it is true that the bolts were weaker than the welds would have been, they were strong enough to handle the forces the design specified. There's a quote by LeMessurier in the podcast that says this.

Re:Missing the obvious? (1)

Talennor (612270) | about 4 months ago | (#46795061)

And it was obvious enough for an undergrad to discover. Even though it passed the (at the time) tried and true methods that proved the fitness of many designs. It even became a cautionary tale that improved our procedures without the building falling down and killing people (which I find to be the truly amazing part of this story).

However, your lego example could point out why wind wasn't tested at the corners. In pushing over legos you assume a constant force from any direction (since you're pushing with your hand/foot/whatever). But wind produces considerably less force at angles. How would you blow over a lego tower? Your first obvious choice might be to try directly at the sides.

Re:Missing the obvious? (1)

CanadianRealist (1258974) | about 4 months ago | (#46795175)

But wind produces considerably less force at angles.

True, which is why that is not normally considered. But in this case the lack of support at the corners made the building particularly vulnerable to diagonal forces. That was the point I was trying to make with the Lego example. And if you're designing such an unusual building maybe you should consider more than just the first "first obvious choice" for what could go wrong.

What poetry is this? (5, Insightful)

dicobalt (1536225) | about 4 months ago | (#46794769)

A teetering bank towering over a church?

Re:What poetry is this? (1)

PNutts (199112) | about 4 months ago | (#46795279)

Holy tongue twister Batman!

Risk (1)

PPH (736903) | about 4 months ago | (#46794837)

LeMessurier realized that a major storm could cause a blackout and render the tuned mass damper inoperable. Without the tuned mass damper, LeMessurier calculated that a storm powerful enough to take out the building hit New York every 16 years.

Sonds like he forgot to account for systematic risk. Mutiple failures caused by one underlying event having a higher probability than unrelated failures. Its a common problem with the quantitative approach to analyzing failures.

Ahh Unions... (5, Insightful)

PrimaryConsult (1546585) | about 4 months ago | (#46794851)

I want to be in support of unions, but then you read about shit like this. Basically, "Hey, let's render inoperative some vital equipment necessary to make the determination on whether 10 blocks of Manhattan need to be evacuated because they weren't wired by union electricians"...

One time, the readings went off the chart, then stopped. This provoked more bafflement than fear, since it seemed unlikely that a hurricane raging on Lexington and Fifty-third Street would go otherwise unnoticed at Forty-sixth and Park. The cause proved to be straightforward enough: When the instrumentation experts from California installed their strain guages, they had neglected to hire union electricians. "Someone heard about it," LeMessurier says, "went up there in the middle of the night, and snipped all the wires."

Re:Ahh Unions... (1)

PrimaryConsult (1546585) | about 4 months ago | (#46794911)

I'm not sure how my post is offtopic considering I quoted one of the linked articles...

Re:Ahh Unions... (1)

Kuroji (990107) | about 4 months ago | (#46795185)

Someone who has mod points today and has been involved with a union saw this and went 'how dare you badmouth unions', probably.

Re:Ahh Unions... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795287)

You should stop wanting to be in support of unions. They are Anonymous Cowards.

Conditional probability... (1)

Idarubicin (579475) | about 4 months ago | (#46794855)

In other words, for every year Citicorp Center was standing, there was about a 1-in-16 chance that it would collapse.

Well, no. That figure only applies if a power outage (affecting both the city power and the building's emergency power, so as to disable the building's tuned mass damper) occurs simultaneously with every occurrence of high winds. Or if the building's owners decide to just turn off the tuned mass damper for giggles, and leave it turned off for a decade and a half.

Far more interesting - and potentially scary - was the fact that even with the mass damper, the building would expect to see winds sufficient to cause toppling approximately once every 55 years. As the building is now approaching its fortieth birthday, there's a better than even chance that it would have fallen by now.

Re:Conditional probability... (1)

careysub (976506) | about 4 months ago | (#46794983)

In other words, for every year Citicorp Center was standing, there was about a 1-in-16 chance that it would collapse.

Well, no. That figure only applies if a power outage (affecting both the city power and the building's emergency power, so as to disable the building's tuned mass damper) occurs simultaneously with every occurrence of high winds. Or if the building's owners decide to just turn off the tuned mass damper for giggles, and leave it turned off for a decade and a half.

...

True, but even restating is as "Every 16 years the building was in a state where if the power failed, it would collapse" is pretty serious especially since these events are always in the middle of severe storms.

Not a design flaw (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46794859)

A construction flaw

Re:Not a design flaw (1)

Stormwatch (703920) | about 4 months ago | (#46795275)

No, still a design flaw. This risk would not exist if they had used a more traditional design. If that church made it impossible to do so, they should have bought the church and demolished it, or built elsewhere, instead of risking lives with that less secure design!

Challenger and Fukushima (2, Insightful)

ed1park (100777) | about 4 months ago | (#46794863)

“How the hell can you ignore this?” - Robert Boisjoly, Thiokol booster rocket engineer for the Challenger
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02... [nytimes.com]

“They completely ignored me in order to save Tepco money,” - Kunihiko Shimazaki, a retired professor of seismology at the University of Tokyo
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03... [nytimes.com] \

For things that are too big to fail and would cause major disaster, the corporate shield must be removed and executive management must be held directly responsible. Financially and criminally.

never cross the unions (2)

przemekklosowski (448666) | about 4 months ago | (#46794917)

The original New Yorker article had a fascinating tidbit: when the architect realized the danger, he arranged to deploy a network of strain gauges to monitor the actual stresses in the building's critical structural nodes. This was done as an emergency, overnight IIRC. Several days later, the data stopped flowing. It turns out that the electrician's union found out that it was done without the union contract and had the wires cut.

Re:never cross the unions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795259)

So since the reason for all this was kept secret, did anybody involved in the cutting actually know what it was they were affecting, or is this just another attempt to demonize a natural reaction to what they would have seen as corporations trying to undercut workers yet again?

Re:never cross the unions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795311)

Natural reaction? Fuck you and your entitled attitude.

Makes me think of the Hancock Tower in Boston (1)

drhank1980 (1225872) | about 4 months ago | (#46794985)

The article makes me think of the Hancock Tower [wikipedia.org] in downtown Boston. It had all sorts of issues with the wind including the large glass panels falling from the building to the streets below.

Math (1)

multi io (640409) | about 4 months ago | (#46794987)

LeMessurier calculated that a storm powerful enough to take out the building hit New York every 16 years." In other words, for every year Citicorp Center was standing, there was about a 1-in-16 chance that it would collapse."

Umm, actually that would be p=1-(1/E)^(1/16)=0.0605869 (about 1-in-16.5052).

Re:Math (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 4 months ago | (#46795193)

Actually no, the odds of collapse would be much lower, unless you are assuming that any storm capable of knocking down the building would automatically also cause a blackout that disabled the tuned mass damper that would otherwise allow it to survive. Without knowing the conditional probability of a blackout occurring during such a storm it's impossible to calculate the chances of a collapse.

Re:Math (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46795337)

There is a 1 in 1 chance that you are an idiot.

Standard Engineering ethics case study (3, Informative)

Strider- (39683) | about 4 months ago | (#46795163)

This case is one of the usual case studies that make up many Engineering Ethics courses (at least it was brought up in mine). The nice thing about this case is that in the end, it all worked out for the better, and is a good news story rather than a disaster.

The other typical case studies are the Therac 25 [wikipedia.org] , Challenger Disaster [wikipedia.org] , Hyatt Walkway Collapse [wikipedia.org] and in Canada the Quebec Bridge [wikipedia.org] collapse (which also lead to the creation of the Iron Ring [wikipedia.org] .

There is a significant portion of the Engineering education that is dedicated to reminding prospective Engineers of their responsibilities to society, and the power they can potentially wield. Ethics is also a significant portion of the licensure to get one's professional designation.

A clear lack of taste (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 4 months ago | (#46795245)

I particularly like the part where LeMessurier, the structural engineer given most of the credit for this giant ugly glass-and-steel rectangle on stilts (with a *gasp* slanted roof, how exciting!) calls the Old Saint Peters Church [nyc-architecture.com] that it was built to accommodate “a crummy old building the lowest point in Victorian architecture."

If that's the sentiment of the people designing our buildings, then it's no wonder that US cities are such colossal eyesores.

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