A. S. Usmani, Y. C. Chung and J. L. Torero

How did the WTC towers collapse: a new theory

A. S. Usmani, Y. C. Chung and J. L. Torero

School of Engineering and Electronics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3JN, UK

Received 10 March 2003; revised 6 June 2003; accepted 10 June 2003. ; Available online 26 July 2003.


This paper uses a finite-element model to investigate the stability of the Twin-Towers of the World Trade Center, New York for a number of different fire scenarios. This investigation does not take into account the structural damage caused by the terrorist attack. However, the fire scenarios included are based upon the likely fires that could have occurred as a result of the attack. A number of different explanations of how and why the Towers collapsed have appeared since the event. None of these however have adequately focused on the most important issue, namely ‘what structural mechanisms led to the state which triggered the collapse’. Also, quite predictably, there are significant and fundamental differences in the explanations of the WTC collapses on offer so far. A complete consensus on any detailed explanation of the definitive causes and mechanisms of the collapse of these structures is well nigh impossible given the enormous uncertainties in key data (nature of the fires, damage to fire protection, heat transfer to structural members and nature and extent of structural damage for instance). There is, however, a consensus of sorts that the fires that burned in the structures after the attack had a big part to play in this collapse. The question is how big? Taking this to the extreme, this paper poses the hypothetical question, “had there been no structural damage would the structure have survived fires of a similar magnitude”?

A robust but simple computational and theoretical analysis has been carried out to answer this question. Robust because no gross assumptions have been made and varying important parameters over a wide range shows consistent behaviour supporting the overall conclusions. Simple because all results presented can be checked by any structural engineer either theoretically or using widely available structural analysis software tools. The results are illuminating and show that the structural system adopted for the Twin-Towers may have been unusually vulnerable to a major fire. The analysis results show a simple but unmistakable collapse mechanism that owes as much (or more) to the geometric thermal expansion effects as it does to the material effects of loss of strength and stiffness. The collapse mechanism discovered is a simple stability failure directly related to the effect of heating (fire). Additionally, the mechanism is not dependent upon failure of structural connections.

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