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David B. Peraza, P.E. and Daniel A. Cuoco, P.E.

Collapse Configuration 4.4
Steel Fracture Surfaces 4.9
Curing Concrete Test Cylinders 4.11
Snow and Ice Accumulation 4.14
Failed Components 4.15
Unfailed Components 4.16
Field Notes 4.17
Photographs 4.18
Video 4.19
Information Sought 4.20
Who Should Be Interviewed 4.22


The first steps following a collapse are critical. They will blaze the trail for subse-
quent investigations, and they may prevent further damage or loss of life.
The activities immediately following a collapse profoundly influence the suc-
cess of subsequent technical investigations. So much of the evidence associated
with a collapse is of a perishable nature—and some of it highly perishable—that
swift action is needed to preserve as much as possible. Snow will melt, fracture
surfaces will corrode, the debris will be removed, and memories will fade.
The forensic engineer who is called in following a collapse plays a crucial role
in determining what those first steps should be. He or she is the most qualified to
recognize perishable evidence and its potential value. The forensic engineer can


recommend action, and may be in a position to persuade those who are in control
of the site. The decisions made will directly affect the abundance—or scarcity—of
evidence, upon which investigations will depend. Sparse evidence leads to tentative
conclusions; robust information provides the basis for a persuasive argument.
A successful investigation can be defined as one that satisfies its stated goals in the
most efficient manner possible. Although investigations may justifiably have other
goals, for the purposes of this chapter, it is assumed that the goal is to determine, within
a reasonable degree of engineering certainty, the most probable cause(s) of the failure.
This chapter deals with issues that a forensic engineer may be faced with when
she or he first steps onto a collapse site, and in the ensuing days. It includes issues
such as safety, preserving perishable evidence, reserving samples, documentation,
interviews, document gathering, and preliminary evaluation. With most of these
issues, speed and accuracy are of the essence.


The forensic engineer called to a collapse may be requested to assess the safety
and stability of the structure for a variety of possible reasons:
● To assist in identifying the safest routes through the debris, or identifying areas
that must be avoided until stabilized. These routes may be needed by rescue per-
sonnel to reach victims, by safety officials who need to reach utility shutoff
valves, or by workers attempting to stabilize the structure. In search-and-rescue
situations, the forensic engineer may also be able to assist in identifying “pock-
ets” within the debris where victims might be sheltered.
● To assist in identifying components that are in imminent danger of further collapse.
● To evaluate methods of stabilizing the structure, such as by adding shoring,
bracing, or tiebacks.
● To assist in determining whether it is advisable to provide protection for the pub-
lic, or whether to restrict public access. Protection may include safety netting,
sidewalk bridges, and other barriers.
● To assist in evaluating alternative demolition or dismantling sequences. The load
paths after a collapse may differ significantly from the intended load paths, and
may not be readily apparent. It is important to try to identify stressed components,
or potentially stressed components. If a stressed component is cut or removed, it
may release its load in a sudden and uncontrolled manner, possibly causing injury
or disturbing other components. If it is necessary to remove a potentially stressed
component, consideration should be given to first relieving its load (possibly using
cables with come-alongs), next removing the member, and then slowly releasing
the temporary load in a controlled manner. For complex collapses, the active load
paths may become apparent only as demolition proceeds, so it is important that the
process be constantly monitored. Removal of posttensioned elements requires
special attention to prevent unexpected releases of load.

FIGURE 4.1 Manhattan’s Times Square was immediately closed to the public after portions of this
scaffolding and hoist at Four Times Square collapsed on July 21, 1998. Extensive protective measures
and stabilization had to be installed before dismantling of the crippled scaffolding could even begin.
Engineers from the authors’ firm worked closely with contractors throughout the sensitive dismantling
operation. (a) Protective netting being installed to help contain debris.


After a collapse, the as-built construction, its position, its condition, and other cir-
cumstances on the site become evidence. This evidence will play a crucial role in
determining the most likely cause of the failure and contributing factors. Some of
this evidence is durable and will remain reasonably intact over a period of time,
possibly even if left exposed to the elements. Certain evidence, however, is of a per-
ishable nature and therefore must be quickly documented or otherwise preserved.

FIGURE 4.1 (Continued) (b) Eerily empty Times Square.

Collapse Configuration

The collapse configuration can provide valuable information about possible col-
lapse mechanisms and the origin of the failure, and may also serve to eliminate
some mechanisms from further consideration. Due to various pressures, it is likely
that the collapse scene will need to be disturbed—or even altogether removed—
within a short time. It is therefore important that the configuration of the collapse
be “captured” as quickly as possible.
It is extremely valuable to establish—and to apply—a nomenclature for label-
ing key components prior to their removal. Wherever possible, it is desirable to use
any predefined nomenclature, such as column grid lines, supplementing it as
required. In some cases, it is necessary to develop the entire nomenclature. This
would be necessary if drawings were not available, or if the structure were com-
posed of interchangeable elements, such as a scaffold system.
If labeling of key components cannot be done prior to their removal, as might
be the case when a rescue operation is under way or if access is hazardous, the
components will have to be labeled as they are removed. This requires closely
monitoring the removal operation, tracking components as they are removed, and
labeling them as soon as they reach an accessible location. This operation will
usually require a team of two or three people for every crew that is removing
items. Cooperation from the contractor performing the removal will greatly facil-
itate the process.


FIGURE 4.1 (Continued) (c) Temporary outriggers cantilever out from the building to help prop up
the scaffolding until it can be dismantled.

There are several types of labeling systems. Three of the most commonly used
are the following:

1. Identity piece-mark system. If the identity of a piece is known, it can be

labeled with an identity piece mark that is keyed to a drawing. If the original
orientation of the element is known from its context in the debris, but may not
otherwise be readily apparent, it should be marked on the piece, for example,
“north flange” or “bottom end.”
2. Serial piece-mark system. In some cases, the identity of a piece may not be
known with certainty. Such a piece should still be labeled, but in this case with
an arbitrary—but unique—piece mark. This piece mark is arbitrary in the sense
that it conveys no information about the identity of the piece; it serves solely as
a label to distinguish this piece from other pieces. The assigned piece mark
must be unique over the entire project. If multiple persons are simultaneously
assigning the piece marks, incorporating the person’s initials in the piece mark,
such as “JFK-23,” will help in ensuring uniqueness. Obviously any information
that may assist in later determining the identity of the piece, such as where it
was found, should be recorded, either directly on the piece or in field notes.
3. Match-mark system. Match marking of mating segments can greatly facilitate
later reconstruction. It can be used on members that are severed, members that

FIGURE 4.2 Collapse of this suspended cement plaster ceiling in a rail station during rush hour resulted
in two deaths and many injuries to commuters. This PATH station in Jersey City, NJ, was closed for
nearly 2 weeks to allow for the inspection of all ceilings, the installation of protective scaffolding in areas
of similar construction, and engineers from the authors’ firm to conduct field investigations.

are cut, or members that are disconnected. Match marking consists of marking
both sides of mating segments with an identical label. If necessary, a match
point can also be indicated on the mating ends so that they can be reconstructed
with the proper relative orientation. When used in conjunction with a piece-
mark system, the match-mark pairs need only be unique to that piece. For
example, “Match 1” may suffice if both segments are already marked with the
same piece mark. If used as a stand-alone notation, each pair of match marks
must be unique over the entire project, so the marks will necessarily be more

A combination of nomenclature systems is often used on a given project.

High-quality field notes, photographs, and possibly video are invaluable for
documenting the collapse configuration and the removal process.
Aerial photographs can provide a valuable overall view of the site. Consideration
should be given to both vertical and oblique photographs. Vertical photographs most
clearly show the position of features and components in plan. The intended use of
the photographs should be considered in selecting the person or firm to take the pho-

FIGURE 4.3 Portions of this brick facade rained down on the sidewalk and
adjacent buildings, forcing officials to immediately close Madison Avenue. A
temporary bridge was erected across Madison Avenue to shield the public
before it could be reopened to traffic. In this photograph, additional unstable
areas of brick have been removed, and other stabilization has been added.

tographs. If the photographs will be used for general information purposes, then high-
quality handheld photographs may suffice. If photogrammetric techniques will be
used to precisely determine the location of features, or if the photographs need to be
viewed stereoscopically, then specialized aerial photography equipment will be nec-
essary. Oblique photographs are useful for capturing the relative heights of elements
and provide a more natural, three-dimensional view. Oblique photographs should
preferably be taken from all four sides.

FIGURE 4.4 Bracing and shoring were installed to prevent further collapse of this parking deck in
Queens, NY.

FIGURE 4.5 (a) The 1978 collapse of Connecticut’s Hartford Civic Center, shortly
after a well-attended basketball game, miraculously resulted in no deaths or injuries.

FIGURE 4.5 (Continued) (b) Detailed markings on the debris helped preserve information about the
collapse configuration, which assisted the authors’ firm in determining the cause of the collapse.

For large sites, it may be desirable that professional surveyors lay out baselines
or grid lines for reference. The position of collapsed elements can then be mea-
sured in relation to these reference lines.

Steel Fracture Surfaces

Features of fractured steel surfaces, if preserved, can provide crucial information

regarding the failure. Examination of failure surfaces can assist in determining
whether fatigue played a role, the order of magnitude of the cycles experienced, the
relative magnitude and suddenness of the applied load, the ductility of the failure,
whether the fracture originated at a preexisting crack, and other information. Some
of these telltale features exist at the microscopic level and thus are fragile. They can
be obscured—or even destroyed—by light corrosion. Corrosion of freshly exposed
steel can occur rapidly, especially in humid or seaside environments.
Fracture surfaces can be readily protected against corrosion by spraying with
acrylic paint. Use of a pigmented coating will help provide visual confirmation
that a surface has not been overlooked. The coating can be easily removed in the
laboratory with a solvent. See Fig. 4.9.
FIGURE 4.6 A labeling system was developed by the authors’ firm for use by all parties to identify the scaffold components as
they were dismantled at Four Times Square.

FIGURE 4.6 (Continued).

Curing Concrete Test Cylinders

If the structure is under construction, curing concrete test cylinders may be on the
site. Some concrete cylinders may have already been transported to the testing lab-
oratory. A concerted effort should be made to locate all curing concrete cylinders
immediately. These cylinders can provide invaluable information, especially for
cases where premature formwork removal may be an issue. If there is any possi-
bility that the cylinders may be damaged or otherwise compromised at their found
location, they should be carefully moved to a safe location. Care should be exer-
cised during the move to minimize disturbing the set of the concrete. See Fig. 4.10.
Whether the cylinders are on or off the site, a decision must be made quickly
concerning the disposition of curing cylinders. One option is to test the cylinders,
using the same protocol called for in the project specifications and using the same
testing laboratory. However, consideration should be given to altering the proto-
col, depending on the nature of the case and the number of cylinders available. For
example, it may be advisable to test certain cylinders immediately, to determine
the concrete strength on the day of the collapse. Or it may be advisable to send
some or all of the cylinders to an independent laboratory. It may also be prudent
for the investigating engineer to witness the testing of the cylinders.
Testing laboratories normally dispose of cylinders shortly after testing them.
However, consideration should be given to retaining the tested cylinders, either for
their own evidentiary sake or for additional testing, such as petrographic examination.






6th Floor
EL.52'-4" 116 247

184 378 066

EL.43'-8" 503

4th 380 222
EL.35'-0" 175


EL.26'-4" 384


2nd 058 291

139 379
1st Floor 134 124

128 065

158 377

C 060 466

D 327
EL.–18'-8" 419


DESIGNATION 1-E 2-E 3-E 3.8-E 4.8-E 6-E.5
FIGURE 4.7 A comprehensive serial piece-mark system, in combination with identity marks and
match marks, by the authors’ firm allowed almost complete reconstruction of the columns, leading to
a persuasive determination of the collapse cause and the retraction of OSHA’s theory.

FIGURE 4.8 Aerial photography, combined with land surveying techniques, is often used to docu-
ment large-scale collapses, such as that of the Schoharie Bridge (1987), which was investigated by the
authors’ firm.

FIGURE 4.9 Application of protective coatings to steel fracture surfaces such as these helps preserve
delicate telltale features.

FIGURE 4.10 These curing concrete cylinders were found at the L’Ambiance Plaza site and were
instrumental in ruling out substandard concrete strength as a possible cause of the collapse.

Snow and Ice Accumulation

The weight of snow actually on a roof at the time of its collapse is an extremely
valuable piece of information. When compared against the code-prescribed design
loads for the structure and the design criteria, it can provide an indication of
whether the failure was due to an error in design or construction, or due to an
unforeseeable overload.
Depending on climactic conditions, the amount of snow and ice may change
dramatically in the days—or even hours—following a collapse. Additional pre-
cipitation may increase the weight, winds may sweep off snow or add to drifted
areas, or melting may reduce the weight. To obtain the most reliable measurement,
it is important that the snow weight be measured as quickly as possible.
For several reasons, however, it may be difficult or impossible to accurately
measure the snow weight. Measurements of snow weight in collapsed areas may
not be representative of conditions present prior to the collapse, since the depth of
snow may have been radically altered by the collapse itself. Measurements in adja-
cent noncollapsed areas of the same roof are potentially the most meaningful, if the
thermal characteristics of the roof and the temperature below it match those of the
collapse area. Care must be taken that the configuration of adjacent roofs and other
obstructions does not materially affect the expected drift heights or accumulations
due to sliding snow. Safety of the personnel measuring the snow weight should
always be a concern. Metal roofs may be extremely slippery, even those with mild
slopes, and the stability of the remaining structure may be questionable.

If it is not possible to measure the snow weight on the roof itself, the next-best
alternative is to measure it on nearby roofs with similar wind exposures. The geo-
metric conditions of these roofs should be carefully documented, especially with
regard to conditions that simulate or differ from the subject roof.
The physical measurement of the snow weight needs to be made carefully. One
way is to use the inverted-container method:

1. Press the inverted container down into the snow until the roof is firmly contacted.
2. Remove the snow and ice on all sides of the container.
3. If it is found that the ice has prevented the container from reaching the roof,
carefully remove the ice around the perimeter of the container. If ribs prevent
uniform contact with the roof, such as on metal panel roofs, notch the container
to fit over the ribs. Another alternative for ribbed roofs is to use a container that
fits between the ribs, and to locate it appropriately.
4. Slide a thin sheet, possibly metal, under the container to help in retaining the
contents while the container is flipped to its normal position.
5. Weigh the contents, and measure the opening of the container used. The results
can then be reported in terms of pounds per square foot.

Depending on the consistency of the snow, it may be possible to remove the

inverted container and leave the snow standing. Measurements of the thickness of
snow and ice strata could then be made before placing the material in the container
for weighing.
If possible, several samples should be taken from each selected location to min-
imize random measurement errors. It is also recommended that the measurement
process be videotaped, or at least extensively photographed. See Fig. 4.11.


Except for the smallest of failures, it is usually impractical and unnecessary to

reserve the entire structure. The forensic engineer will usually have to make deci-
sions regarding what portions of the structure should be set aside for future use. It
is important that the forensic engineer be present during demolition, so she or he
has the opportunity to identify additional components as they are uncovered.
Both failed and unfailed components are of interest to the forensic engineer.
For all samples, it is important that a chain of custody be maintained in the event
that the matter eventually goes to trial.

Failed Components

Failed components are obvious candidates for preserving. Most important are failed
items that are suspected of being associated with the initiation or propagation of the

FIGURE 4.11 Measurements of the snow weight on this preengineered refrigerated ware-
house shortly after the roof collapse indicated a snow load nearly double the code value.
This photograph was taken after much of the snow had melted.

failure, as opposed to items that failed due to consequential impact. However, in the
early stages of an investigation it is not always possible to distinguish initiation dam-
age from consequential damage with any degree of certainty, so it may be prudent
to retain all damaged elements. See Fig. 4.12.

Unfailed Components

Unfailed components can be useful for several purposes:

● To use in a testing program. Care must be taken to ensure that the selected sam-
ple was not materially damaged in the collapse, if the results are to be used as a
basis for estimating the strength of similar failed components.
● To study their construction.
● To study differences between them and companion failed components.
● To exemplify to audiences, particularly nontechnical persons, what a typical
unfailed component looks like or how it functions.
● To conclusively show that a certain component did not fail.


High-quality documentation of the existing conditions is invaluable for develop-

ing hypotheses—as well as for ruling them out—and for ensuring that collapse
theories are consistent with the physical evidence.

FIGURE 4.12 Judicious retention of key components by early investigators allowed the authors’ firm
to observe firsthand the as-built conditions of this metal deck that collapsed while concrete was being
placed, and to observe the failure mode.

Various methods can be used to document conditions, including field notes,

photographs, and video.

Field Notes

Field notes are the backbone of a solid documentation program. They may include
● A log of crucial activities

● Sketches
● Measurements
● Reference to photographs, highlighting what is depicted or indicating the location
● Notes of persons met and information thus gained
● A record of instructions given

Field notes should be made with the mentality that they are an irreplaceable
record of firsthand observations, and that other persons may need to understand
them, possibly many years in the future, without the benefit of explanation. As
such, every effort must be made to make them self-explanatory, legible, and
accurate and to keep them well organized. Legends and explanatory notes about
what is depicted will assist tremendously in this regard. Dedicated bound field
books can be useful for keeping notes organized. Field notes, whether bound or
loose, should be dated, pages numbered, and the preparer identified.
Permanence is better ensured if the field notes are made in ink, rather than pen-
cil or marker.
Redundant record keeping by different observers is a useful technique for
cross-checking the accuracy of the information collected.
Care should be taken that the observer’s notes remain factual in nature and
refrain from stating preliminary conclusions, since at some point they may have to
be turned over to attorneys for other parties.


Photographs are, of course, vital to a forensic investigation. They provide a visual

record that can assist in determining the cause of the failure, and they are persua-
sive in reports and presentations.
To ensure the lasting value of photographs, it is important to take and file them
in an organized manner. This is especially important where there are numerous
photographs taken by multiple individuals. Nothing is more frustrating than not
being able to determine who took a photograph or exactly what the photograph
depicts. Seldom can a photograph stand on its own. Information that should be
kept with each roll includes a roll identifier, a description of what is depicted, the
photographer’s name, when they were taken, and activities under way at the time
of the photograph. A more detailed description of what the individual frames
depict, if it is not self-evident, is also valuable.
Some techniques that will assist in making photographs self-explanatory:
● Begin a series of photographs with an overall photograph, and then take close-
up photographs of each item of interest within the overall frame. The overall
photograph then can serve as a “key plan” for the close-up photographs.
● Use a camera with a properly set date-stamp feature.

● Assign each photographer identifiers for his or her rolls of film. A simple
method is to use the person’s initials with a sequential suffix, for example, roll
JFK-1, JFK-2, etc.
● When a new roll is started, first photograph the roll identifier, handwritten on a card.
This will provide a permanent record, on the negatives, of the roll’s identifier.
● Label components before photographing them, and make sure that the label is
visible within the frame. If it is not possible to label the actual component, or if
the label cannot be visible within the frame, an alternative is to write a label on
a card and to place the card within the scene.

The use of digital cameras in forensic engineering is currently limited, but will
undoubtedly increase rapidly as the technology becomes more affordable and
more secure, and as image quality increases. Coupled with computers and appro-
priate software, digital cameras provide “instant” photographs, without the need
for film processing. This is especially useful for distributing the images electron-
ically, via e-mail or Web sites, since the image quality is generally as good as the
resolution of conventional monitors. Currently, the resolution of digital pho-
tographs is largely unsuitable for reproduction in print articles or for examining
fine detail in the image. But image compression technology and the capacity of
digital storage media are advancing rapidly. Another hurdle to be overcome is the
concern for authenticity—that the image may have been electronically manipu-
lated and altered such that it no longer accurately represents the conditions
observed. This concern will probably be allayed as encryption technology and
“digital signatures” find their way into the mainstream.


Video can also be a valuable documentation tool. It is best suited for the following:
● An activity or process. Examples include removing and weighing a snow sam-
ple, demolition operations, and other events that cannot be adequately captured
with a series of still photographs.
● Providing a “walk-through tour.”
● Low-light conditions. In situations where the items of interest are so far from the
photographer that a camera flash is ineffective, a video camera may be better
able to capture the conditions.
● In conditions where note taking is not practical, the camcorder can be used as a

However, video is not suitable for all tasks, and considerable skill is needed
to make a high-quality tape. Amateur videos often suffer from excessive shak-
ing, disorientation due to panning too quickly, leaving the subject too soon, and

distracting background noise. A prime disadvantage is the need for special

equipment to view the tape.
For most situations, video photography is not necessarily better than still pho-
tography. If the situation truly warrants the use of video, consideration should be
given to having it done professionally.


Eyewitnesses, and other persons with relevant project knowledge, can provide the
forensic engineer with information that is essential to a successful investigation.
The accounts can be invaluable in formulating hypotheses, focusing the investiga-
tion, and finally arriving at the most probable cause of the failure.
The interviews should be conducted as soon as possible for several reasons:
● To capture the recollection while it is fresh
● To minimize the possibility of accounts being influenced by what other people
saw or believe happened
● To facilitate identifying and locating witnesses
● To assist in formulating hypotheses for investigation
In some cases, the forensic engineer may be able to obtain interview transcripts in
a timely manner from other parties, such as from government agencies that are
investigating the incident.
In other cases, it may be necessary to obtain interviews directly, or to retain a
party solely for this purpose. The principal advantage to retaining a professional
interviewer is that it allows the forensic engineer to focus on the technical inves-
tigation. This is especially useful if there are a large number of potential witnesses,
or if they are not easily identified or located. Interviewing is an art, and a profes-
sional interviewer will use questioning techniques that elicit candid responses and
encourage volunteered information.
If an independent interviewer is retained, he or she will need to work closely with
the forensic engineer. The forensic engineer will need to thoroughly brief the inter-
viewer and suggest lines of questioning. The forensic engineer can also assist by iden-
tifying types of persons to focus on. The forensic engineer and the interviewer will
need to be in constant communication, so that the forensic engineer can make use of
the statements and so that the interviewer’s lines of questioning can be updated. In
some instances, the forensic engineer may suggest follow-up questions for a particu-
lar individual, or may feel that he or she should attend a follow-up interview.

Information Sought

Although the specific information that is sought from interviewees will depend on
the particular project, certain lines of questioning are common to nearly all types
of failures:

1. Status of construction at time of collapse. If the collapse involves a structure

being constructed, the forensic engineer will probably need to determine the sta-
tus of the construction. Was the bracing in place yet? Which connections were
complete or incomplete? Which slabs were in place? Which had been reshored?
What was the status of the underpinning work? Bearing in mind that the inter-
viewee may have incomplete knowledge about the construction, responses
should be compared against other accounts and against physical evidence.
2. Sequence of collapse. Knowing which element, or which area of the struc-
ture, was the first to fail could help to quickly focus the investigation. However,
an individual’s perception of the sequence will depend on many factors, such
as the speed of the collapse, where the individual was and what he or she was
doing, what drew her or his attention to it, etc. It is rare that a single individu-
al’s perception of the sequence will be fully accurate or provide the complete
picture. In all likelihood, it will be necessary to piece together the various
accounts into a coherent sequence, weighing the reliability of each account.
Wherever possible, physical evidence should be sought to confirm or deny
3. Possible triggering events. Most collapses have a triggering event associated
with them, and identifying it may speed the investigation. Sometimes the trig-
ger is conspicuous, such as an errant barge striking a bridge pier; at other times
it is subtle, such as one more thermal cycle in a fatigue-critical member.

a. Activities under way at the time of collapse. In the case of a structure under
construction or being renovated, it will be important to identify exactly
what was being done at the time of the collapse. Was a bracing member
being temporarily disconnected? Was concrete being placed and, if so,
exactly where? Were workers in the process of plumbing the structure?
Persons associated with the project will be the most useful in this regard.
b. Unusual loading on structure. Was there a collision or other unexpected
impact? Was the structure overloaded by material’s storage? Was the occu-
pancy loading unusually high? Eyewitnesses will often be able to offer
some insight into these questions.
c. Environmental factors. These are also possible triggering events, such as
high winds, snowfall, and other unusual weather-related patterns. Persons
present at the site should be able to provide a sense of the role that environ-
mental factors may have played, which can be quantified through the use of
climatological data.

Table 4.1 includes typical questions, as well as information that should be included
with each typed transcript or summary. The list should be tailored to suit a specific pro-
ject. It may also be useful to develop different lines of questioning for different types
of interviewees. For example, in interviewing employees of a concrete subcontractor,
it would be appropriate to include a line of questioning regarding reshoring practices,
which would not be appropriate for a passerby eyewitness.

TABLE 4.1 Typical Interview Questions and Information

Time, date, place, and duration of interview.

Name of person(s) interviewing and others present.
Indicate whether the interview was tape-recorded.
Date that transcript was typed and by whom.
1. What is your name, who is your employer, what is your position/title, what are your
2. What is your experience and education?
3. Where were you at the time of collapse?
4. What were your doing?
5. What was the first indication that something was wrong?
a. If it was a sound, describe it. Where did it appear to come from? How long did it
last? What else was going on?
b. If it was a sensation, describe it.
c. If it was visual, describe it.
d. If you were alerted by someone else, describe. By whom, where was that person,
what did he/she say?
6. What happened next?
7. How much time elapsed from the first indication until collapse?
8. Who else was with you?
9. Did you have any concerns previously?
10. Any rumors?
11. What activities were underway at time of collapse?
12. What was the status of construction at the time of the collapse?
13. What was the weather?
14. Any idea what may have triggered failure?
15. Do you mind if I contact you again if necessary?
16. Will you let me know if you think of anything else that may be helpful?
Add questions that are tailored to the project and to the type of knowledge that the inter-
viewee may have.

Who Should Be Interviewed

There are several types of people who may be able to provide useful information.
Passerby eyewitnesses may be able to provide some information about the
sequence of the collapse. These witnesses normally will not be familiar with
construction terminology and so may not be able to express their observations in the
interviewer’s terms. They also may be difficult to identify, since they have no asso-
ciation with the project. Project eyewitnesses are persons associated with the project
who saw the collapse. Due to their familiarity with construction, these persons will
generally be able to give a more sophisticated account than a passerby eyewitness.
Project personnel are persons associated with the project, but who may not
have seen the collapse. These persons may have knowledge about the status of
construction, activities that were under way, the design or construction of the
structure, or other useful background information. Examples include project man-
agers, design professionals, and foremen.

FIGURE 4.13 Eyewitness accounts, examination of debris, and project records were all needed by
the authors’ firm to establish the status of construction at the time of collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza.

FIGURE 4.14 There was no doubt what triggered this collapse. This tractor-trailer truck, heavily
loaded with the gypsum board, ventured into a light-duty area of this structure. Engineers from the
authors’ firm assisted the contractors in devising a scheme to safely extract the truck.

FIGURE 4.15 The collapse of this roof structure into the occupied hotel room below was virtually
“triggerless.” Corrosion of the slab reinforcement had been ongoing over many years, until finally the
strength of the slab was reduced to the point that it collapsed. Workers are in the process of installing
new structural framing.



In the initial stages of an investigation, there are often areas of interest that are
common to all parties. These provide opportunities to pool resources, to avoid
duplication of effort, and to establish a common knowledge base. Potential areas
of common interest include the following:
● Identification of debris. Establishing a common identification system from the
start will tremendously facilitate later discussion and debate. In addition, shar-
ing of this raw information will minimize the possibility of misidentifying com-
ponents, which could lead to patently false theories.
A potential consequence of not promptly exchanging this type of information is
illustrated by the 1987 collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza. In its investigation OSHA
(Occupational Health and Safety Administration) misidentified a key compo-
nent and subsequently developed a collapse scenario that was dependent on this
misidentified component. Despite repeated attempts by the authors’ firm to alert
OSHA to the misidentification, this scenario was widely disseminated to the
public. OSHA eventually retracted the scenario years later in a technical jour-

nal, after court settlements were complete.* This unfortunate situation, which
obscured the cause of the collapse, could have been avoided if a climate of coop-
eration had been fostered in the beginning, allowing exchange of this funda-
mental information.
In contrast, on the 1998 scaffold collapse at Four Times Square, key forensic
firms worked together to mark components as they were dismantled and to orga-
nize them off the site, using a common identification system developed by the
authors’ firm. This cooperative effort established a common body of informa-
tion from which the independent investigations could spring.
● Destructive testing. Often there will be certain components that multiple parties
would like to perform destructive testing on. One solution is for those parties to
agree on the testing to be performed, and on a firm to conduct it, and then to share
in the costs and results. This is most feasible for fundamental standardized tests,
such as concrete strength tests and tensile tests, and in fact this was the approach
taken in the investigation of the scaffold collapse at Four Times Square. More
specialized tests will usually have to be undertaken by individual parties.

Sharing of basic information will be greatly facilitated if the leading investiga-

tor has neutral interests and fosters a climate of cooperation. Naturally, in cases
where there is a possibility of litigation, the forensic engineer should consult with
the client or the client’s attorney to be sure that he or she does not inadvertently
compromise the client’s interests.


Gathering of project documents is a top priority. Some documents may be readily

obtainable, and others will require perseverance. Types of documents that are typ-
ically sought include
● Design drawings
● Specifications
● Boring logs
● Calculations by the engineer of record and by specialty engineers
● Erection drawings, shop drawings (Fig. 4.16), and other contractor submittals
● Submittal logs
● Inspection reports
● Daily reports

*C. F. Scribner and C. G. Culver. “Investigation of the Collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza,” J. Perf. Constr. Fac.,
ASCE, 2(2): 58–79, 1988. D. A. Cuoco, T. Z. Scarangello, and D. B. Peraza. “Investigation of L’Ambiance Plaza
Building Collapse.” J. Perf. Constr. Fac., ASCE, 6(4): 211–231, 1992. C. G. Culver and R. D. Marshall, discussion
of Cuoco et al. (1992), J. Perf. Constr. Fac., ASCE, 8(2): 160–161, 1994.