9/11 probers say updated fire standards for skyscrapers could save lives
NEWSDAY - Friday, June 24, 2005
BY KAREN MATTHEWS
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK -- Updated building standards requiring fire-protected elevators and widely spaced stairwells, among other features, could save lives and would add only marginally to the cost of new skycrapers, investigators who examined the World Trade Center collapse said.
The lead investigator with the National Institute of Standards and Technology said Thursday that reports that the recommendations might add 2 to 5 percent to the cost of a building were not unreasonable.
"It would differ depending on the location, depending on the city ... but certainly for the vast bulk of buildings that are throughout the United States I would say the costs would be modest," said Shyam Sunder.
NIST, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, does not have the authority to institute the changes but hopes to persuade local authorities to change their building codes.
NIST released a draft of its findings at a news conference in lower Manhattan and will host a conference Sept. 13-15 after a period of public comment. The conference at NIST's headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md. is intended to encourage implementation of its recommendations.
Those recommendations include installation of structurally hardened elevators designed to function in a fire and stairwells situated apart from each other so that if one is damaged another might still work.
"In general it's good practice to have them remote, not clustered," Sunder said.
NIST has determined that the death toll of 2,749 at the World Trade Center would have been much higher _ perhaps as much as 14,000 _ if the twin towers had been struck later in the day at full occupancy.
But if the buildings' elevators had been better protected, many of them would have remained functional after the attacks, Sunder said. Those elevators could have helped more people escape the building before the collapse, or deliver firefighters quickly to the inferno and perhaps rescue those trapped above.
The three-year probe has gathered data on everything from fire tests on steel to office worker behavior in evacuating, to create an exhaustive sequence of exactly how the towers fell.
While many of the recommendations would apply to new construction, Sunder urged managers of older high-rises to consider whether the recommendations for new codes and practices would make their buildings safer too.
"Building owners and public officials should look at these recommendations in light of the inventory of existing buildings and take steps to mitigate any unwarranted risks," he said.
But Cincinnati-based architect David Collins, who acted as an adviser to the NIST investigation, said building owners will resist the recommendations for changes to older buildings.
"I don't think it's likely to happen in the vast majority of them," Collins said. "I think the vast majority of owners are hard-pressed to even consider some retrofit activities that have already been suggested many times over."
Brian Meacham, a principal with Arup, an engineering consulting firm, said the report contains useful recommendations that should be weighed against other design considerations.
"Don't take an extreme terrorist event and raise the bar so high for buildings that it restricts the uses that we want," he said.
Patricia Lancaster, buildings commissioner for New York City, said the report would help planners improve the safety of high-rise buildings.
"My staff and I look forward to thoroughly examining the NIST findings and considering how to integrate the best practices into the new building code for New York," she said.
Sally Regenhard, chairwoman of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign and the mother of a firefighter who died at the trade center, said the report was not specific enough about the communications failures that plagued the Fire Department on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's indisputable that the majority of the 343 firefighters perished because their radios did not work in the buildings," Regenhard said. "They could not escape. They did not know what they were getting into."