Annapolis company sifts through the pieces from disasters to learn what went wrong

FINDING OUT WHY

July 13, 1992|By Leslie Cauley | Leslie Cauley,Staff Writer

On New Year's Eve in 1986, a disgruntled employee set fire to the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The fire engulfed the hotel, killing 97 people.

That tragedy captured headlines around the world -- and sparked a series of lawsuits, including one claiming several people died when portable stage equipment collapsed amid the flames. The class-action suit sought $10 million in damages from the equipment manufacturer.

The manufacturer didn't believe its product, which had been stored in the hotel ballroom, was at fault. But how could it fight the claim? The equipment was in ashes, and there were no survivors to testify on what role, if any, its collapse had played.

The answer: computer animation.

Not just any computer animation, mind you, but a state-of-the-art depiction of the fire -- gleaned from more than 27,000 data points -- by Annapolis-based Forensic Technologies International Corp.

Using the latest in computer technology and forensic engineering techniques, FTI animators provided defense attorneys with a second-by-second depiction of events at the hotel -- showing how, when and at what temperature the deadly fire spread.

The film's conclusion: People trapped in the ballroom died well before the stage equipment succumbed to the flames.

After attorneys for the plaintiffs got a look at FTI's 12-minute animation, they settled -- for less than $1 million.

Score another one for FTI, among the handful of U.S. companies taking the lead in forensic engineering, a discipline that is part science, part engineering and part private eye.

Founded 10 years ago as an experimental offshoot of ManTec Corp., a government contractor based in Alexandria, Va. FTI is a $13 million-a-year business on the vanguard of forensic engineering, or failure analysis.

"Few companies can do work as complex and sophisticated as they can," says Gregory P. Joseph, a New York trial lawyer and author of "Modern Visual Evidence."

"While the company is not unique," Mr. Joseph said, "they are as good as anybody else out there, and few do it as well."

And FTI, which has 90 employees, is poised for fast growth. Its goal: building a $40 million business through expansion and acquisitions over the next five years.

Companies such as FTI work with lawyers to help prepare evidence. Forensic engineers serve as expert witnesses, if needed, and assist lawyers preparing cases for trial.

Put simply, forensic engineers try to figure out why something didn't work the way it should have, then explain what did happen and why.That simple objective can take on enormously complex proportions.

In the case of the Dupont Plaza fire, for example, FTI engineers conducted on-site sleuthing -- collecting physical evidence, photographs and other documentation -- as well as extensive fire testing. Then, the hotel fire was mathematically modeled and re-created in a lab to verify scientists' hypotheses.

The scientists' conclusion was no more than an expert opinion, to be sure. But it was based on months of engineering analysis that could withstand tough scrutiny in court -- the acid test for all evidence.

Over the years, FTI has been called on to analyze everything from simple falls to jammed lawn mowers. The company was once asked to analyze the physics behind an inflatable swimming pool on a flatbed truck that became airborne -- with a person on it -- at 60 mph.

In another case, it determined how many times a person had been run over by a car (the lawyer could sue for each time the car backed over the body).

Each case, no matter how big or small, receives strict attention inside FTI's space-age labs. Working off desktop workstations that pack enough juice to power a corporate mainframe, engineers painstakingly plot points, coordinate data and brainstorm -- among themselves or with outside consultants -- to see projects through. Some cases take just hours, others years.

FTI has earned a reputation as one of the best and most creative outfits of its kind in the nation.

Over the years, the company has worked with more than 1,000 law firms, including several Baltimore-based firms. And its commercial client list includes such giants as General Motors Corp., Lockheed Corp. and insurer GEICO.

Changes afoot at FTI could help cement the company's reputation as an industry pacesetter -- or bog the company down with balance sheet burdens.

The company recently severed its 10-year relationship with ManTec in what has been described by FTI officials as a friendly stock buyback deal. At the same time, FTI embarked on an ambitious expansion plan to build a $40 million-a-year business within five years.

Joe Reynolds, president and co-founder of FTI, acknowledges the risks involved. "There's always a concern of growing too fast, and not being able to handle the growth."

And in a business where reputations are judged -- and judged harshly -- by the most recent case, he acknowledges that a misstep could be disastrous.

But risk, after all, is the specialty of the house.

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