hat is almost certainly the most
sophisticated and complete understanding of exactly how and
why the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell has been
compiled as part of a largely secret proceeding in federal
court in Lower Manhattan.
Amassed during the initial stages of a complicated
insurance lawsuit involving the trade center, the confidential
material contains data and expert analysis developed by some
of the nation's most respected engineering minds. It includes
computer calculations that have produced a series of
three-dimensional images of the crumpled insides of the towers
after the planes hit, helping to identify the sequence of
failures that led to the collapses.
An immense body of documentary evidence, like maps of the
debris piles, rare photos and videos, has also been
accumulated in a collection that far outstrips what government
analysts have been able to put together as they struggle to
answer the scientifically complex and emotionally charged
questions surrounding the deadly failures of the
But everyone from structural engineers to relatives of
victims fear that the closely held information, which includes
the analysis and the possible answers that families and
engineers around the world have craved, may remain buried in
sealed files, or even destroyed.
Bound by confidentiality agreements with their clients, the
experts cannot disclose their findings publicly as they wait
for the case to play out. Such restrictions are typical during
the discovery phase of litigation. And as it now stands, the
judge in the case — who has agreed that certain material can
remain secret for the time being — has approved standard legal
arrangements that, should the lawsuit be settled before trial,
could cause crucial material generated by the competing sides
to be withheld.
"We're obviously in favor of releasing the information, but
we can't until we're told what to do," said Matthys Levy, an
engineer and founding partner at Weidlinger Associates, who is
a consultant in the case and the author of "Why Buildings Fall
Down: How Structures Fail" (Norton, 2nd edition, 2002).
"Let's just say we understand the mechanics of the whole
process" of the collapse, Mr. Levy said.
Monica Gabrielle, who lost her husband, Richard, when the
south tower fell and who is a member of the Skyscraper Safety
Campaign, said the information should be disclosed. "If they
have answers and are not going to share them, I would be
devastated," Mrs. Gabrielle said. "They have a moral
The lawsuit that has generated the information involves
Larry A. Silverstein, whose companies own a lease on the trade
center property, and a consortium of insurance companies. Mr.
Silverstein maintains that each jetliner that hit the towers
constituted a separate terrorist attack, entitling him to some
$7 billion, rather than half that amount, as the insurance
As both sides have prepared their arguments, they have
spent hundreds of thousands of dollars acquiring expert
opinion about exactly what happened to the towers.
Dean Davison, a spokesman for Industrial Risk Insurers of
Hartford, one of the insurance companies in the suit, said of
the findings, "There are some confidentiality agreements that
are keeping those out of the public domain today." He conceded
that differing opinions among the more than 20 insurers on his
side of the case could complicate any release of the
As for his own company, whose consultants alone have
produced more than 1,700 pages of analysis and thousands of
diagrams and photographs, Mr. Davison said every attempt would
be made to give the material eventually to "public authorities
and investigative teams."
Still, some of that analysis relies on information like
blueprints and building records from other sources, like the
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which built and
owned the trade center and supports Mr. Silverstein in the
suit. Mr. Davison said he was uncertain how the differing
origins of the material would influence his company's ability
to release information.
In a statement, the Port Authority said access to documents
would be "decided on a case-by-case basis consistent with
applicable law and policy," adding that it would cooperate
with "federal investigations."
The fate of the research is particularly critical to
resolve unanswered questions about why the towers fell, given
the dissatisfaction with the first major inquiry into the
buildings' collapse. That investigation, led by the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, was plagued by few resources, a
lack of access to crucial information like building plans, and
infighting among experts and officials. A new federal
investigation intended to remedy those failings has just begun
at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or
NIST, an agency that has studied many building disasters.
Officials with NIST have said it could take years to make
final determinations and recommendations for other buildings,
a process they now acknowledge might be speeded up with access
to the analysis done by the consultants on the lawsuit.
Gerald McKelvey, a spokesman for Mr. Silverstein, said of
the real estate executive's own heavily financed investigative
work, "We decline to comment other than to say that
Silverstein is cooperating fully with the NIST investigation."
A spokesman for the agency confirmed it was in discussions
with Mr. Silverstein on the material, but said no transfer had
With no shortage of money or expertise, investigations by
both sides in the legal case have produced a startling body of
science and theory, some of it relevant not only to the trade
center disaster but to other skyscrapers as well.
"The work should be available to other investigators," said
Ramon Gilsanz, a structural engineer and managing partner at
Gilsanz Murray Steficek, who was a member of the earlier
inquiry. "It could be used to build better buildings in the