A disaster escaped

Translated by Hilary Luk |   中文版



“Trust me, sir, according to my thesis’ calculations, the building you’re designing will collapse!”


When Chief Engineer LeMessurier heard this warning from a Structural Engineering female student of Princeton University, he immediately called his colleagues together to re-analyse the building’s structure before he made new calculations.


Ultimately, his building was declared safe.


Months later, LeMessurier found himself in a meeting talking about the joints of the steel structures. Then, he suddenly realised that he had forgotten about a major change in plans. Originally, the joints were to be welded instead of connected the nuts and bolts they were using now. This realisation perfectly matched the female student’s conclusion!


LeMessurier immediately went into a cold sweat. He began fearing about the disaster that would occur if the wind blew at 70mph, which is exactly what happened 16 years ago. The building would not be able to withstand such a strong wind, and instead, crumble down at an angle of 45 degrees, falling sideways. The impact would be much worse than that of September 11, where the building collapsed straight down. In this case, the building would fall sideways against other buildings and tear them down too in a domino effect. And who knows how many people could die from this catastrophe?










LeMessurier’s building was New York’s Citicorp Building, built in 1978. This building was a brand new structure where LeMessurier used Tuned Mass Dampers to reduce the burden from wind and earthquakes (please see picture above). LeMessurier also used a V-shaped steel structure, which distributed the heaviest weight to the central pillar. The northwest corner did not require pillars, and could actually save space, which could be used to rebuild the local church.


Who would have thought this design would have brought such a dilemma to New York City!


LeMessurier then faced a few options: The Chinese method of ‘Playing Dumb’, the Korean method of suicide or simply running away and moving overseas. However, he chose the more responsible approach of meeting with the landlords.


LeMessurier spent a lot of effort and finally persuaded the restoration workers to begin work immediately. In the next three months, a team of welders added welding iron to the joints. The whole building was to be completed before the next typhoon.



To make things even more dramatic, the project began six weeks after Typhoon Ella attacked New York. The project was only half completed when Ella hit. However, LeMessurier can thank his lucky stars that Ella soon steered away from the building site. It was a very near miss for LeMessurier’s building.



LeMessurier’s story became public 20 years after. His decision-making became the subject of professional conduct textbooks. Some admire his great ethical sense as he never pretended that he was unaware of the potential disaster. Rather, he chose to tackle and avoid the unimaginable disaster responsibly. However, some criticize him for his wrong calculations, which could have resulted in an estimated 18-block collapse of buildings. Furthermore, some also criticize him for hiding the real facts from the public in order to save face, and to throw himself into a vain quest for honour.


However, in any case, New York City had escaped a major disaster until September 11, 2001.