Studies to begin of WTC towers' collapse

Researchers hope work leads to improvements in skyscraper designs

April 27, 2003|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - Some stayed behind to help others. Some were elderly or disabled. Some kept working until it was too late.

Of the nearly 2,800 people killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, most were above the impact zones where two hijacked passenger jets slammed into the towers.

But more than 70 people worked in offices beneath those burning gashes and still lost their lives.

Understanding what happened to them is the goal of one of a sweeping series of studies beginning this spring to see what lessons can be learned from the twin towers.

Researchers from federal agencies, the city's Health Department and Columbia University hope the results of their work will result in recommendations for improvements in skyscraper design and emergency procedures nationwide. Such changes could save lives in the future, according to victims' family members.

"There were deadly mistakes made," said Monica Gabrielle, whose husband, Rich, an employee of Chicago-based Aon Corp., died in the collapse of the south tower. "If you want to build tall buildings, you have to be able to protect the occupants."

Engineers are examining the structural factors that caused the towers to collapse, and a federal commission led by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean is probing the intelligence and law-enforcement miscues that allowed the signs of an impending attack to be missed, among other investigations.

Examining the circumstances that led to deaths below the impact zone in the north tower is the focus of a study by the New York City Health Department.

With research assistance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Department hopes to interview at least two survivors of each victim who worked below the north tower's 93rd floor, the lower part of the impact zone. The aim is to learn as much as possible about each victim's movements, state of mind and physical condition.

The study will not include the south tower because of confusion caused by at least one security announcement in which people were told to stay in their offices after the north tower was hit.

Researchers have working theories about why some people on the lower floors did not make it out. "People with disabilities, for instance, or an underlying medical condition," said Assistant Health Commissioner Susan Wilt. "And if you had a supervisory or emergency role, would your duties, or your feeling that you had to stay behind to do your duty, influence your chances of survival?"

The fates of two such victims in the north tower became one of the most well-known stories of Sept. 11.

Edward Beyea, a paraplegic who worked on the 27th floor, could not walk down the stairs, so his friend, Abraham Zelmanowitz, stayed with him to wait for rescue workers.

Higher in the north tower, an estimated 150 employees in the New York office of the Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin Brown and Wood escaped.

"We had searchers who literally went office to office," said John Feldkamp, executive director of the New York office. "They were fairly confident that everyone had gotten out."

The firm suffered only one fatality, receptionist Rosemary Smith, whose body was found outside. An older woman who had trouble walking, Smith was probably receiving treatment when she was hit by falling debris, Feldkamp said.

Other evacuation projects are focusing almost exclusively on survivors. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are preparing to interview about 1,650 witnesses, including firefighters, police personnel, office workers and family members who talked to victims on the phone after the planes hit the towers.

The study is part of the institute's comprehensive investigation of what happened inside and around the towers, including the response of firefighters and how the buildings' construction may have led to their collapse. Researchers will ask survivors to recount their actions on Sept. 11 and to explain why they did what they did.

"We're looking at the occupant behavior," said project leader Jason Averill. "We want to understand all the forces that came together and created that outcome and learn from that."

The psychological aspect of the evacuation is at the heart of a study by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Through at least 100 in-depth interviews that started recently, researchers hope to learn such things as how some office workers emerged as leaders during the evacuation, persuading others to follow them, and what kept some workers moving down the stairs despite an urge to stop and rest.

"We've heard from a couple of people who were praying the whole way down," said Robyn Gershon, one of the principal investigators on the study, which is being funded with a $1.5 million CDC grant.

"They were very calm, and they calmed the people around them. Purposefulness is very important."

Although an estimated 12,000 people were evacuated, family members believe that more could have been saved.

Many workers climbed to the top of the south tower in the hope they could be rescued from the roof. The roof door had been locked after the 1993 Trade Center bombing, but that was not generally known.

Mandatory emergency communication systems, video cameras in stairwells and regular evacuation drills are among the changes in building codes and procedures called for by some safety experts and advocacy groups such as the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, founded by the families of Sept. 11 victims.

But building safety specialist Jake Pauls says making such changes will be difficult because of a disagreement among high-rise safety experts.

"One camp says there's nothing wrong with the buildings, we just need to stop airplanes from running into them," Pauls said. "The other camp says there are inherent problems with the way buildings are designed. I think the split is going to widen."

Stevenson Swanson is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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