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The Design Flaw That Almost Wiped Out an NYC Skyscraper 183

Posted by timothy
from the let's-not-blow-this-out-of-proportion dept.
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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The Design Flaw That Almost Wiped Out an NYC Skyscraper

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  • Nuh-uh! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @10:52AM (#46794505) Journal
    "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!


  • by Bruce66423 (1678196) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @11:03AM (#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...
  • by raymorris (2726007) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @11:30AM (#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:Nuh-uh! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gnupun (752725) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @11:39AM (#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.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @11:41AM (#46794731) Journal
    When did (s)he graduate? Where did (s)he end up? Doesn't (s)he deserve at least a minor credit in this story?
  • by dicobalt (1536225) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @11:50AM (#46794769)
    A teetering bank towering over a church?
  • by Captain Segfault (686912) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @11:58AM (#46794817) Homepage Journal

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

  • Re:Nuh-uh! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by qwijibo (101731) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @11:59AM (#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.

  • Ahh Unions... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PrimaryConsult (1546585) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @12:01PM (#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."

  • by ed1park (100777) <ed1park&hotmail,com> on Saturday April 19, 2014 @12:04PM (#46794863)

    “How the hell can you ignore this?” - Robert Boisjoly, Thiokol booster rocket engineer for the Challenger []

    “They completely ignored me in order to save Tepco money,” - Kunihiko Shimazaki, a retired professor of seismology at the University of Tokyo []\

    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.

  • by Actually, I do RTFA (1058596) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @12:04PM (#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:Press strike? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The Grim Reefer (1162755) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @12:39PM (#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.

  • by russotto (537200) on Saturday April 19, 2014 @02:15PM (#46795541) Journal

    Clearly, the contractor was stupid and more interested in saving money than doing it correctly.

    No. They had an idea to save time and money (to use bolts instead of welds for certain braces), and they submitted it to LeMessurier's firm, which approved it after some analysis, which turned out to have been done wrong. It wasn't the contractor's fault, they didn't have the expertise to evaluate whether the change would work or not, and they properly submitted it to those who did.

Mystics always hope that science will some day overtake them. -- Booth Tarkington