Unit Plans Closed Hearings on Collapse of the Towers
New York Times
12 November 2004
by Jim Dwyer
he federal agency investigating the collapse of the World Trade Center said this week that some of its deliberations would take place in secret, including discussions on possible changes to national building codes and standards.
The announcement has been sharply protested by advocates for families of the 9/11 victims, who said they were considering a lawsuit to force the agency to open the meetings to the public.
For more than two years, the agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has been studying how the trade center was built and why it fell. A draft of its final report is due in January.
In an e-mail notice sent earlier this week, the institute said that its construction advisory committee, a group of experts overseeing the investigation, would meet for 10 hours on Nov. 22 at its headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., but that only the first 2 hours would be public.
The remainder will be closed because of the agency’s concerns that discussions about changes in construction codes could prematurely influence the building industry and the people who write the codes, said Mat Heyman, the institute’s chief of staff.
"We are still literally formulating our possible recommendations regarding improvements in standards, codes and practices," Mr. Heyman said.
Monica Gabrielle, whose husband Richard was killed when the south tower collapsed 57 minutes after it was hit by one of the hijacked jets, vehemently objected to the decision.
"You have one job, and one job only – to find out the truth of what happened to those buildings and to report to the public about it," she said yesterday in an interview. "You don’t owe industry, the Port Authority or federal agencies anything. You owe it to the public – the truth, no matter where it goes."
The investigation was started in 2002 after lobbying by, among others, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, an organization created by Ms. Gabrielle and Sally Regenhard, the mother of Christian Regenhard, a firefighter who died. A lawyer for the campaign, Norman Siegel, said he was studying the possibility of a lawsuit.
While the investigation has not received anything like the wide public attention given to the 9/11 commission, the agency’s work has been closely followed by the building and real estate industries, and by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The agency does not have the power to enact new codes, but its findings on design issues – including the number of escape staircases needed in skyscrapers, the strength of the materials, the quality of fireproofing – are expected to influence structural requirements for new buildings.
"There has been considerable pressure on us to come out with our final recommendations," Mr. Heyman said. "We do not want in any way, shape or form to influence any recommendations until they at least have had the benefit of advisory committee review."
Mr. Heyman said the agency has been aggressive about sharing information with the public throughout the investigation. Thousands of pages of documents have already been published on its Internet site. He said draft proposals would be issued for public comment before the final report is written.
Ms. Regenhard said it was not clear how the agency had reached some of the findings it has already released. "We have had no access to the process by which those conclusions are reached," she said.
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