A few months ago, I posted (Implicit Assumptions) about an Engineers Australia session I attended by Sean Brady, a forensic structural engineer. That EA session was about the response to an almost-failure, the Citicorp building in New York. In that case, the designer realised, after construction, that he’d made an oversight on some calculations and the building wasn’t properly designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. Some rushed retrofits were undertaken to resolve it, and disaster was averted.
Sean Brady writes about forensic investigations into failures (or, almost failures), and he puts the Human Factors spin on it, which makes it really interesting. Several months ago, he started a podcast, which I have subscribed to and have thoroughly been enjoying. Sean is a great story-teller, and a compelling speaker.
One incident he tackles is the Hyatt Regency collapse in Kansas City in July 1981. In that case, the structural collapse of walkways was one of the most devastating collapses in US history, with 114 fatalities and over 200 injuries.
All disasters occur due to the failure of many systems, but the recognition of human factors is becoming more prevalent in these failures. The analysis by Sean Brady shows that it was changes that occurred during fabrication, which did not go through the required engineering check (human factors at play), which was one of the causes, or maybe the ultimate cause, of this disaster. So those tedious requirements for those drawings to go back to the engineer for signoff – it’s not just for nothing. It’s important. And it’s equally important that the responsible engineer actually checks them, and doesn’t just sign blindly.
I’m going to quote here the final couple of minutes of the Brady podcast, because it really struck a chord with me, and it should for any responsible engineers out there:
“This collapse resulted in 114 fatalities…the legal battles were immense. At one stage claims under review totalled US$3B. A single class action settled for $143M. The 72 rescue workers sued for the trauma suffered during the rescue effort. Gillum, the engineer of record, along with his project engineer, were convicted of gross negligence, misconduct, and unprofessional conduct in the practise of engineering… but Gillum didn’t retreat from the public eye. He’s instead spoken about the collapse on many occasions. He says his objective is to scare the daylights out of engineers about what can go wrong. At the ASCE in 2000, Gillum presented a paper on the collapse. … He closed his paper with an expression of regret, and a reminder to the profession of the importance of discussing (and preventing) such failures. He said, “there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think about the Hyatt collapse. The lives that were lost, the relatives who lost their loved ones, and the effect it has had … on everyone connected with the project. My hope is that we as a profession can and will continue to learn, practise, disseminate, change, and adapt procedures and policies that will prevent a tragedy like this from occurring again.”
If you’ve got 15mins, download the podcast and give it a listen. You won’t be able to turn away until it’s over.