BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the
World Trade Center, structural engineers are grappling with a
question that a month ago would have been completely unthinkable:
Can buildings be designed to withstand catastrophic blasts
inflicted by terrorists?
Ten days after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers,
structural engineers from the University at Buffalo and the
Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research
headquartered at UB traveled to ground zero as part of a project
funded by the National Science Foundation.
Visiting the site as part of an MCEER reconnaissance visit, they
spent two days beginning the task of formulating ideas about how to
design such structures and to search for clues on how to do so in
buildings that were damaged, but still are standing.
Their work is continuing as one of several MCEER projects funded
by a $100,000 grant from the NSF. The NSF awarded eight grants to
fund post-disaster assessments.
The project involving the UB/MCEER engineers is the only one
that includes examining structural performance of buildings from an
The team consists of George C. Lee, Ph.D., MCEER director and
Samuel P. Capen Professor of Engineering at UB; Michel Bruneau,
Ph.D., MCEER deputy director and UB professor of civil engineering,
and Andrei Reinhorn, Ph.D., and Andrew Whittaker, Ph.D., both UB
professors of civil engineering and MCEER investigators.
"Our objective in visiting ground zero was to go and look at the
buildings surrounding the World Trade Center, those buildings that
still standing are, but that sustained damage," said Bruneau.
"Our immediate hope is that we can develop a better
understanding as to why those buildings remain standing, while our
long-term goal is to see whether earthquake engineering
technologies can be married to existing technologies to achieve
enhanced performance of buildings in the event of terrorist
attacks," he added.
Photographs taken by the investigators demonstrate in startling
detail the monumental damage inflicted on the World Trade Center
towers and buildings in the vicinity.
One building a block away from the towers remains standing, but
was badly damaged when it was hit by a column from one of the
collapsing World Trade Center towers.
"This building is many meters away from 2 World Trade Center and
yet we see a column there that used to be part of that building,"
explained Whittaker. "The column became a missile that shot across
the road, through the window and through the floor."
The visit to the area also revealed some surprises, according to
the engineers. For example, the floor framing systems in one of the
adjacent buildings was quite rugged, allowing floors that were
pierced by tons of falling debris to remain intact.
"Highly redundant ductile framing systems may provide a simple,
but robust strategy for blast resistance," he added. Other
strategies may include providing alternate paths for gravity loads
in the event that a load-bearing column fails.
"We also need a better understanding of the mechanism of
collapse," said Whittaker. "We need to find out what causes a
building to collapse and how you can predict it."
Reinhorn noted that "earthquake shaking has led to the collapse
of many buildings in the past. It induces dynamic response and
extremely high stresses and deformations in structural components.
Solutions developed for earthquake-resistant design may be directly
applicable to blast engineering and terrorist-resistant design.
Part of our mission now at UB is to transfer these solutions and to
develop new ones where none exist at present."
The NSF funding will support several graduate students on the
"Just as the top research universities of California have
assisted that state in developing guidelines and technologies for
reducing losses from future earthquakes, the MCEER and UB team
stands ready to serve in an identical role for the State of New
York, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade
Center," said Whittaker.
By 2004, UB's Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental
Engineering will be home to the most versatile, high-performance
structural engineering laboratory in the world as a result of
grants totaling nearly $20 million from the NSF and the State of
New York. While the lab is being constructed primarily for the
earthquake-engineering research, the high-flow hydraulic system,
high-performance actuators and reaction walls and floors are
perfectly suited for blast-engineering research, Whittaker