By Graham Rayman
STAFF WRITER- New York Newsday
January 9, 2002
"The major insult was the plane knocking out the columns, and destroying the connections to the floors," said Richard Gewain, a member of the federally designated panel of engineers probing the collapses. "Conceivably, the building would have collapsed without the fire."
Gewain, a senior engineer at Maryland-based Hughes Associates who has investigated a number of major high-rise fires, said the impact was so tremendous that each building's fireproofing was rendered irrelevant.
Gewain's view is in opposition to that of other fire experts, who have questioned whether the towers were adequately fireproofed.
The panel, formed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Society of Civil Engineers, is investigating a wide range of theories.
Gewain believes the jet fuel burned off within a few minutes. Much of the fuel, he said, was blown outside the buildings.
From a high of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in those first minutes, the temperature then dropped, he said, to the level of a normal office fire - 1,300 to 1,500 degrees.
"The jet fuel flashed over all of the other combustibles in the space, and then you had a regular office building fire," he said, suggesting that flames alone would not have caused collapse. In fact, none of the fires he studied before had led to a total collapse.
Gewain said he agrees with other engineers on the panel that the probe would benefit from more access to data about the towers, but he does not believe the investigation has been crippled by lack of access.
"FEMA's effort has been to do a report and get it out as quickly as possible," he said. "On the basis of that report, it may be Congress will appropriate more money."
Bill Manning, editor of the respected 125-year-old journal Fire Engineering, said in an editorial this week that the city's decision to recycle steel from the towers amounts to "destruction of the evidence."
Manning described the federally directed probe as a "half-baked farce commandeered by political forces whose primary interest lies far afield of full disclosure."
Manning and others, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), back a "blue ribbon panel" with greater power to obtain documents and access to the evidence of the collapse.
Gewain said he is waiting to receive specifications on the towers so he can do a series of computer models, but he now believes that a building with a concrete-encased skeleton steel frame would have survived the plane impact.
Despite the unusual circumstances of the attacks, Gewain believes that the probe could affect future skyscrapers.
"It may mean that when it comes to designing tall buildings, that you are limited in terms of construction," he said