by Steven Jones, Robert Korol, Anthony Szamboti and Ted Walter
Volume 47, Number 4, July-August 2016
On September 11, 2001, the world witnessed the total collapse of three large steel-framed high-rises. Since then, scientists and engineers have been working to understand why and how these unprecedented structural failures occurred.
On August 2002, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) launched what would become a six-year investigation of the three building failures that occurred on September 11, 2001 (9/11): the well-known collapses of the World Trade Center (WTC) Twin Towers that morning and the lesser-known collapse late that afternoon of the 47-story World Trade Center Building 7, which was not struck by an airplane.
NIST conducted its investigation based on the stated premise that the “WTC Towers and WTC 7 [were] the only known cases of total structural collapse in high-rise buildings where fires played a significant role.” Indeed, neither before nor since 9/11 have fires caused the total collapse of a steel-framed high-rise—nor has any other natural event, with the exception of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which toppled a 21-story office building. Otherwise, the only phenomenon capable of collapsing such buildings completely has been by way of a procedure known as controlled demolition, where by explosives or other devices are used to bring down a structure intentionally. Although NIST finally concluded after several years of investigation that all three collapses on 9/11 were due primarily to fires, fifteen years after the event a growing number of architects, engineers, and scientists are unconvinced by that explanation.