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The disaster that wasn’t (NYC c. 1977)

Is the lead engineer a hero or a villain?

The Discovery Channel broadcast this documentary on repair of the imperiled Citibank (now Citicorp) Tower in 1978. The lead engineer, William LeMessurier is sometimes credited with being an ethical hero for admitting the towers were fatally flawed by a the substitution of bolted for welded joints. However, the fact that repairs were carried out in secret calls into question LeMessurier’s compliance with the Fundamental Canons of Engineering.

The Citicorp Tower is a famous case in engineering ethics that is often celebrated as a positive example, rather than the more notorious case studies of ethical failures. Prof. Michael Loui summarizes the highlights of the case:

Professor Michael Loui lauds William LeMessurier’s conduct in response to the Citibank Tower crisis as a positive example of engineering ethics that put public safety above cost or professional reputation.
  • The design flaw was revealed by Princeton University engineering student Diane Hartley, who was analyzing the structure as part of an assignment in Prof. David Billington’s class.
  • The structural engineer came to realize that the risk of building collapse exceeded all reasonable expectations. He notified the building owner, admitted the error, and worked out an expensive retrofit paid for by his liability insurance and the building owner.
  • The discovery and remedy happened to coincide with a newspaper strike in New York City, which effectively suppressed publicity or investigation of the project (despite the availability of radio and television news outlets).

As Dr. Loui explains it, the structural engineer took personal responsibility to protect the public safety. However, given the interesting epilogue regarding the structural engineer’s liability insurance premiums, it’s not clear what aspect of self-interest the engineer placed at risk.

The full-length video at the top of this post is a more dramatic account (available from PBSonline) includes testimony from LeMessurier himself. The shorter account in the video below provides a few more details that largely corroborates the Discovery Channel version.

These videos reveal some aspects of the case that are not in Michael Loui’s account, and question whether the case is really the paragon on professional virtue it is celebrated to be. These include the extent to which others are credited for their role in the repairs, the secrecy that surrounded the retrofit, credited, and timing of the work.

The “engineer at the table” referenced in the first documentary is Leslie Robertson, as this more concise account of the case recounts. Robertson, a celebrated structural engineer in his own right who designed the World Trade Center, was retained by Citicorp as a consulting engineer. He was directly involved in the Citicorp retrofit, but barely credited by LeMessurier’s comments. Although a professional engineer’s ethical obligations to the profession include crediting the work of other engineers, LeMessurier mentions Robertson only briefly and misrepresents Hartley’s identity as a male engineering student from New Jersey. (See addendum below). In fact, Hartley was a female student from Princeton University (which is in New Jersey) but remains uncredited by many popular accounts, largely because LeMessurier himself pays little attention to who she was. In the portion of the interview broadcast in the documentary, he seems more concerned with name-dropping Frank Sinatra than with crediting Hartley.

The documentary reports that they worked every night, and on Saturday and Sunday. The explanation offered is that welding produces a great deal of smoke that would upset the people working in the building and disrupt their work. However, working at night also conveniently protected the secrecy of the repair project, as described in the video, “No one but the people who had been told, understood exactly what was going on.” Nevertheless, the repairs could have been completed faster if the welders had been working 24 hrs, rather than just at night. This calls into question the extent to which LeMessurier conformed to the engineer’s ethical obligation to hold paramount public safety, compared with his ethical obligation to act as a faithful agent for his client.

One of the commentators in the video describes the public statements made by Citibank officials as “lies,” because they denied the existence of the structural flaw — a fact corroborated by the New York Red Cross. Professional engineers have the ethical obligation of making “only truthful statements” to the public and must “avoid deceptive acts,” which also raises the question of whether LeMessurier may be held ethically accountable for the dishonesty and lack of transparency surrounding the crisis.

Several of these questions were addressed after the repairs were successfully completed. In this lecture LeMessurier delivered in 1995, he describes the standards by which his conduct and obligations were judged as the matter of financial liability was decided. According to LeMessurier, he successfully negotiated with his liability insurance company a lower premium, as a result of his exemplary conduct that saved them hundreds of millions in avoided damages had the Tower collapsed.

The standard of professional conduct is typically whether the engineer has conducted themselves in a manner that reasonable and competent peers would have. In this lecture, LeMessurier describes how he negotiated with his insurance company for a lower insurance premium as a result of the repairs.
The Diane Hartley Case
by Caroline Whitbeck
In 1978 Diane Hartley was an engineering student at Princeton, studying with David Billington who was offering a course on structures and their scientific, social, and symbolic implications (subsequently titled, “Structure and the Urban Environment”). This course interested Diane Hartley early in her engineering studies and led her to pursue her undergraduate thesis with Billington, a thesis titled “Implications of a Major Office Complex: Scientific, Social and Symbolic Implications.”
In her thesis, Hartley looked into the Citicorp Tower, which had been recently built and was interesting to her for a number of reasons, including its innovative design. That design not only allowed a preexisting church to remain at ground level, but, because it left more open space at ground level, was permitted to be taller than zoning laws would otherwise have allowed.
When she contacted William LeMessurier’s firm (the engineering firm that built the Tower), they put her in touch with Joel S. Weinstein in their New York office, at the time a junior engineer with the firm. Mr. Weinstein sent her the architectural plans for the Citicorp Tower and many of his engineering calculations for the building. She reports that, at the time, she thought it odd that she did not see initials of another person beside those calculations, because the usual practice was for such work to be checked and initialed by a second engineer.
When Diane Hartley calculated the stresses due to quartering winds… . Read more at the Online Ethics Center.