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Wtc collapse secret { September 30 2002 }

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September 30, 2002
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."

Legal experts say confidentiality arrangements like the one governing the material can lead to a variety of outcomes, from full or partial disclosure to destruction of such information. In some cases, litigants who paid for the reports may make them public themselves. Or they may ask to have them sealed forever.
"It is not unusual for one party or another to try to keep some of those documents secret for one reason or another, some legitimate, some not," said Lee Levine, a First Amendment lawyer at Levine Sullivan & Koch in Washington.

Mr. Levine said that because of the presumed value of the information, the court might look favorably on requests to make it public. But the uncertainty over the fate of the material is unnerving to many people, especially experts who believe that only a complete review of the evidence not piecemeal disclosures by litigants eager to protect their own interests could lead to an advance in the federal investigation of the trade center.

"It's important for this to get presented and published and subjected to some scrutiny," said Dr. John Osteraas, director of civil engineering practice at Exponent Failure Analysis in Menlo Park, Calif., and a consultant on the case, "because then the general engineering community can sort it out."

The scope of the investigation behind the scenes is vast by any measure. Mr. Levy and his colleagues at Weidlinger Associates, hired by Silverstein Properties, have called upon powerful computer programs, originally developed with the Pentagon for classified research, to create a model of the Sept. 11 attack from beginning to end.

The result is a compilation of three-dimensional images of the severed exterior columns, smashed floor and damaged core of the towers, beginning with the impacts and proceeding up to the moments of collapse. Those images which Mr. Levy is not allowed to release have helped pinpoint the structural failures.

The FEMA investigators did not have access to such computer modeling. Nor did the FEMA team have unfettered access to the trade center site, with all its evidence, in the weeks immediately after the attacks. But no such constraints hampered engineers at LZA/Thornton-Tomasetti, brought to the site for emergency work beginning on the afternoon of Sept. 11. Daniel A. Cuoco, the company president and a consultant to Silverstein Properties on the case, said he had assembled detailed maps of the blazing debris at ground zero in models that perhaps contain further clues about how the towers fell.

Though the FEMA team could not determine "where things actually fell," Mr. Cuoco said, "we've indicated the specific locations."

Mr. Cuoco said he could not reveal any additional details of the findings. Nor would Mr. Osteraas discuss the details of computer calculations his company has done on the spread of fires in large buildings like the twin towers. Mr. Osteraas has also compiled an extensive archive of photographs and videos of the towers that day, some of which he believes have not been available to other investigators.

And the investigation has not limited itself to computers and documentary evidence. For months, experiments in wind tunnels in the United States and Canada have been examining the aerodynamics that fed the flames that day and stressed the weakening structures.

Jack Cermak, president of Cermak Peterka Peterson in Fort Collins, Colo., was retained by the insurance companies but had previously performed wind-tunnel studies for the original design of the twin towers nearly 40 years ago. For the legal case, Dr. Cermak said, "we've done probably more detailed measurements than in the original design."

"The data that have been acquired are very valuable in themselves for understanding how wind and buildings interact," Dr. Cermak said. "Some of the information may be valuable for the litigation," he said, adding, "I think I've told you all I can."

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