The New York Times The New York Times New York Region September 30, 2002  

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Vast Detail on Towers' Collapse May Be Sealed


What is almost certainly the most sophisticated and complete understanding of exactly how and why the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell has been compiled as part of a largely secret proceeding in federal court in Lower Manhattan.

Amassed during the initial stages of a complicated insurance lawsuit involving the trade center, the confidential material contains data and expert analysis developed by some of the nation's most respected engineering minds. It includes computer calculations that have produced a series of three-dimensional images of the crumpled insides of the towers after the planes hit, helping to identify the sequence of failures that led to the collapses.


An immense body of documentary evidence, like maps of the debris piles, rare photos and videos, has also been accumulated in a collection that far outstrips what government analysts have been able to put together as they struggle to answer the scientifically complex and emotionally charged questions surrounding the deadly failures of the buildings.

But everyone from structural engineers to relatives of victims fear that the closely held information, which includes the analysis and the possible answers that families and engineers around the world have craved, may remain buried in sealed files, or even destroyed.

Bound by confidentiality agreements with their clients, the experts cannot disclose their findings publicly as they wait for the case to play out. Such restrictions are typical during the discovery phase of litigation. And as it now stands, the judge in the case who has agreed that certain material can remain secret for the time being has approved standard legal arrangements that, should the lawsuit be settled before trial, could cause crucial material generated by the competing sides to be withheld.

"We're obviously in favor of releasing the information, but we can't until we're told what to do," said Matthys Levy, an engineer and founding partner at Weidlinger Associates, who is a consultant in the case and the author of "Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail" (Norton, 2nd edition, 2002).

"Let's just say we understand the mechanics of the whole process" of the collapse, Mr. Levy said.

Monica Gabrielle, who lost her husband, Richard, when the south tower fell and who is a member of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, said the information should be disclosed. "If they have answers and are not going to share them, I would be devastated," Mrs. Gabrielle said. "They have a moral obligation."

The lawsuit that has generated the information involves Larry A. Silverstein, whose companies own a lease on the trade center property, and a consortium of insurance companies. Mr. Silverstein maintains that each jetliner that hit the towers constituted a separate terrorist attack, entitling him to some $7 billion, rather than half that amount, as the insurance companies say.

As both sides have prepared their arguments, they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars acquiring expert opinion about exactly what happened to the towers.

Dean Davison, a spokesman for Industrial Risk Insurers of Hartford, one of the insurance companies in the suit, said of the findings, "There are some confidentiality agreements that are keeping those out of the public domain today." He conceded that differing opinions among the more than 20 insurers on his side of the case could complicate any release of the material.

As for his own company, whose consultants alone have produced more than 1,700 pages of analysis and thousands of diagrams and photographs, Mr. Davison said every attempt would be made to give the material eventually to "public authorities and investigative teams."

Still, some of that analysis relies on information like blueprints and building records from other sources, like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which built and owned the trade center and supports Mr. Silverstein in the suit. Mr. Davison said he was uncertain how the differing origins of the material would influence his company's ability to release information.

In a statement, the Port Authority said access to documents would be "decided on a case-by-case basis consistent with applicable law and policy," adding that it would cooperate with "federal investigations."

The fate of the research is particularly critical to resolve unanswered questions about why the towers fell, given the dissatisfaction with the first major inquiry into the buildings' collapse. That investigation, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was plagued by few resources, a lack of access to crucial information like building plans, and infighting among experts and officials. A new federal investigation intended to remedy those failings has just begun at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, an agency that has studied many building disasters.

Officials with NIST have said it could take years to make final determinations and recommendations for other buildings, a process they now acknowledge might be speeded up with access to the analysis done by the consultants on the lawsuit.

Gerald McKelvey, a spokesman for Mr. Silverstein, said of the real estate executive's own heavily financed investigative work, "We decline to comment other than to say that Silverstein is cooperating fully with the NIST investigation." A spokesman for the agency confirmed it was in discussions with Mr. Silverstein on the material, but said no transfer had taken place.

With no shortage of money or expertise, investigations by both sides in the legal case have produced a startling body of science and theory, some of it relevant not only to the trade center disaster but to other skyscrapers as well.

"The work should be available to other investigators," said Ramon Gilsanz, a structural engineer and managing partner at Gilsanz Murray Steficek, who was a member of the earlier inquiry. "It could be used to build better buildings in the future."

1 | 2 | Next>>

A NATION CHALLENGED: THE FINE PRINT; Trade Center Leaseholder Sues a Big Reinsurer  (November 8, 2001)  $

Metro Briefing | New York: Manhattan: Travelers Insurance Sued Over Attack  (January 1, 2002) 

Holder of Trade Center Lease Settles With Two Insurers  (February 16, 2002)  $

A NATION CHALLENGED: INSURANCE ISSUES; Measure Sets Liability Caps For New York And Landlord  (November 17, 2001)  $

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