Along Exit 14B of the New Jersey Turnpike, you can see something even more distressing than lower Manhattan’s skyline. Mountains of metal rise from the scrap yards of Jersey City, where much of the steel from the 110-story World Trade Center was taken and shredded. There, much of the evidence of the world’s largest-ever building collapse passed through on its way into history. It is there that the physical clues of the terrorist assault were gathered together one more time after having left Ground Zero, directly across the Hudson River. But except for 100 or so pieces saved for future research, most of the steel has been cut down for new uses.

It is the steel that told the story of the Boeing 767s’ impacts. It is the pieces from areas around the impact zones that could have told us how the twin towers failed. Without the steel to inspect, we have lost a tremendous opportunity to develop conclusive answers based on physical evidence.

Yet I still want to know everything that happened. As a firefighter, fire protection engineer and professor, I want to know how and why the buildings failed, why the firefighters’ communications systems broke down and how the survivors evacuated.

SEQUENCE. Disasters are complicated events, with chains of interconnected events and conditions that come together in particular sequences. Thoroughly investigating a disaster is the only way to establish its lessons. But a large-scale, multidisciplinary emergency investigation requires the quick preparation of a comprehensive plan, rapid deployment of resources, aggressive information-gathering, continuous documentation, exhaustive interviews and securing of all evidence. These actions constitute the solid foundation from which conclusions can be drawn and recommendations made.

But in response to the disaster at the World Trade Center–the largest building disaster in U.S. and world history–we did not initiate a truly comprehensive investigation. Instead, the Federal Emergency Management Agency funded a Building Performance Assessment Team (BPAT). While a BPAT might be an appropriate response to small incidents, it was totally inadequate for the World Trade Center tragedy.

We should have started off investigating, not assessing. There would have been plenty of time for assessment after a complete set of relevant information and evidence had been gathered. Information and evidence "erodes" quickly. But since we didn’t have a comprehensive investigation response protocol, we most certainly lost valuable information and evidence.

Employing an assessment type of response resulted in a series of negative consequences, not the least of which was the loss of large amounts of potentially critical evidence in the form of the structural steel from the impact zones. In addition, the BPAT’s limited scope did not allow for thoroughly addressing the building evacuation, firefighting and emergency response procedures in light of current building codes.

The BPAT’s inadequacies were highlighted in two recent congressional hearings. Afterward, the House Committee on Science called on the Office of Management and Budget to fund a comprehensive study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the World Trade Center disaster. The science committee also crafted legislation to create a new "National Construction Safety Team" to respond quickly to future disasters (ENR 6/3 p. 7). This legislation includes provisions to prevent some of the problems that plagued the BPAT study, to ensure that any such team in the future takes an investigative approach, looks at a disaster comprehensively, deploys quickly and receives subpoena power to obtain all necessary information.

Nearly nine months after the twin towers fell, an investigation is only beginning. Numerous issues still need to be scrutinized, including some that were of concern long before Sept. 11, such as the reported lack of adequate fireproofing on the steel. I expect that specific changes will be proposed in our building codes, design practices and emergency response procedures as a result.

INTEGRATION. An added benefit of comprehensively investigating the disaster will be focusing on the interrelationship between the World Trade Center and emergency response procedures. Even now across the U.S., the integration of emergency response and high-rise design rarely takes place. Instead, we take a "one-size-fits-all" approach, regarding 100-story buildings the same as 10-story ones in key respects. For instance, current code provisions for hard-wired telephone systems still are not consistent with procedures used by most fire departments. We need to bring building design and firefighting capabilities in line.

It is my hope that the architectural, engineering and construction industry will support the NIST investigation and the creation of a National Construction Safety Team. Those actions could be the greatest memorial to the nearly 3,000 people who perished in the attacks on Sept. 11.

Glenn Corbett, captain of the fire department in Waldwick, N.J., is an
assistant professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the
City University of New York in Manhattan, and a technical editor at
Fire Engineering magazine. He may be e-mailed at