THE JET fuel fires in the World Trade Center towers did not bring down those two buildings. Indeed, the fuel burned up in minutes. Why, then, did the towers and their 44-story neighbor, WTC-7, which was not struck by a plane, collapse? It's a question that bears generally on fire safety, the safety of building occupants and firefighters and the vulnerability of our buildings to terror by fire.
I expected the National Response Team of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would participate in an investigation that I surely thought would follow the Sept. 11 attacks. The ATF has the authority to investigate arson involving interstate commerce. Certainly, these horrendous attacks should be construed as arson. I later learned that the ATF was told it would not be needed.
I expected the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to head the investigations. It's noted for its thoroughness, objectivity and know-how with respect to large-scale disasters. But it was relegated to flight issues dealing with the two hijacked aircraft and the aircraft debris. The buildings were not to be within the scope of their investigation.
There is an ad hoc investigative group, which is sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Society of Civil Engineers. But it does not have the full resources that might be made available, nor does it control the site.
I became increasingly concerned the more I learned about the investigative process, or lack of one. The site teams at the towers were focused on rescue, retrieval and cleanup, not investigation. The structural steel pieces, coded with chalk and stamped numbers to indicate their building location, were being sold as scrap metal.
The evidence needed to identify the cause of the collapse and intensity of the fire was being lost. Had the NTSB or ATF been involved, the site would have been secured, evidence documented and protected. Remember how the pieces of TWA Flight 800 were brought up from the ocean bottom off Long Island and restored to preserve structural evidence essential to identifying the cause of the 1996 crash?
WTC family survivors headed by Sally Regenhard last month urged New York City and federal authorities to launch a formal investigation into the collapse of the towers. As Ms. Regenhard said, her son did not die in a fire because of a collapsed building.
High-rise buildings are required to survive the impact of a modern commercial aircraft. Why shouldn't that include survival from the fire that would erupt? Building codes require that the structural elements of high-rise building withstand a three-hour test in a furnace. Why did the buildings collapse in less time? Was this terrorist attack an isolated event that had no bearing on high-rise vulnerability or on the consequences of fire in general?
The scrapping of steel debris should stop immediately, and all of it that has been sold should be impounded. The site should be controlled to conform to standard investigation practices. All records, video recordings and information about those killed and injured should be secured for analysis.
We can learn a great deal from this catastrophe. Many died because they did not expect buildings to collapse. Firefighters should not be the guinea pigs for determining the structural dynamics of buildings caught in flames. The potential for a building's collapse should be known before it happens. Fire safety needs to be incorporated into the normal design process of buildings.
The federal government has a role in developing the needed technology for fire safety. If there ever was a role for government that transcends political ideologies, this is one.
At least let's start with a formal investigation of the WTC collapse.
James Quintiere is the John L. Bryan Professor of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.