As the North Tower collapsed on September 11, 2001, heavy debris hit 7 World Trade Center, damaging the south face of the building and starting fires that continued to burn throughout the afternoon. The collapse also caused damage to the southwest corner between Floors 7 and 17 and on the south face between Floor 44 and the roof; other possible structural damage included a large vertical gash near the center of the south face between Floors 24 and 41. The building was equipped with a sprinkler system, but had many single-point vulnerabilities for failure: the sprinkler system required manual initiation of the electrical fire pumps, rather than being a fully automatic system; the floor-level controls had a single connection to the sprinkler water riser; and the sprinkler system required some power for the fire pump to deliver water. Also, water pressure was low, with little or no water to feed sprinklers.
After the North Tower collapsed, some firefighters entered 7 World Trade Center to search the building. They attempted to extinguish small pockets of fire, but low water pressure hindered their efforts. Over the course of the day, fires burned out of control on several floors of 7 World Trade Center; the flames visible on the east side of the building. During the afternoon, fire was also seen on floors 6–10, 13–14, 19–22, and 29–30. In particular, the fires on floors 7 through 9 and 11 through 13 continued to burn out of control during the afternoon. At approximately 2:00 pm, firefighters noticed a bulge in the southwest corner of 7 World Trade Center between the 10th and 13th floors, a sign that the building was unstable and might collapse. During the afternoon, firefighters also heard creaking sounds coming from the building. Around 3:30 pm, FDNY Chief Daniel A. Nigro decided to halt rescue operations, surface removal, and searches along the surface of the debris near 7 World Trade Center and evacuate the area due to concerns for the safety of personnel. According to FEMA, the building started to collapse at 5:20:33 pm EDT when the east mechanical penthouse started crumbling, but differing times are given as to what time the building completely collapsed—at 5:21:10 pm EDT according to FEMA, and at 5:20:52 pm EDT according to NIST. There were no casualties associated with the collapse.
In May 2002, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued a report on the collapse based on a preliminary investigation conducted jointly with the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers under leadership of Dr. W. Gene Corley, P.E. FEMA made preliminary findings that the collapse was not primarily caused by actual impact damage from the collapse of 1 WTC and 2 WTC but by fires on multiple stories ignited by debris from the other two towers that continued burning unabated due to lack of water for sprinklers or manual firefighting. The report did not reach conclusions about the cause of the collapse and called for further investigation.
Subsequently, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was authorized to lead an investigation into the structural failure and collapse of the World Trade Center Twin Towers and 7 World Trade Center. The investigation, led by Dr S. Shyam Sunder, drew upon in-house technical expertise as well as the knowledge of several outside private institutions, including the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers (SEI/ASCE); the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE); the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA); the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC); the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH); and the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEAoNY).
The bulk of the investigation of 7 World Trade Center was delayed until after reports were completed on the Twin Towers. In the meantime, NIST provided a preliminary report about 7 World Trade Center in June 2004, and thereafter released occasional updates on the investigation. According to NIST, the investigation of 7 World Trade Center was delayed for a number of reasons, including that NIST staff who had been working on 7 World Trade Center were assigned full-time from June 2004 to September 2005 to work on the investigation of the collapse of the Twin Towers. In June 2007, Shyam Sunder explained, “We are proceeding as quickly as possible while rigorously testing and evaluating a wide range of scenarios to reach the most definitive conclusion possible. The 7 WTC investigation is in some respects just as challenging, if not more so, than the study of the towers. However, the current study does benefit greatly from the significant technological advances achieved and lessons learned from our work on the towers.
In November 2008, NIST released its final report on the causes of the collapse of 7 World Trade Center. This followed NIST’s August 21, 2008, draft report which included a period for public comments. In its investigation, NIST utilized ANSYS to model events leading up to collapse initiation and LS-DYNA models to simulate the global response to the initiating events. NIST determined that diesel fuel did not play an important role, nor did the structural damage from the collapse of the Twin Towers or the transfer elements (trusses, girders, and cantilever overhangs). The lack of water to fight the fire was an important factor. The fires burned out of control during the afternoon, causing floor beams near column 79 to expand and push a key girder off its seat, triggering the floors to fail around column 79 on Floors 8 to 14. With a loss of lateral support across nine floors, column 79 buckled – pulling the east penthouse and nearby columns down with it. With the buckling of these critical columns, the collapse then progressed east-to-west across the core, ultimately overloading the perimeter support, which buckled between Floors 7 and 17, causing the remaining portion of the building above to fall downward as a single unit. The fires, which were fueled by office contents and burned for 7 hours, along with the lack of water, were the key reasons for the collapse.
When the first 7 World Trade Center collapsed, debris caused substantial damage and contamination to the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Fiterman Hall building, located adjacent at 30 West Broadway, to the extent that the building was not salvageable. A revised plan called for demolition in 2009 and completion of the new Fiterman Hall in 2012, at a cost of $325 million. The adjacent Verizon Building, an art deco building constructed in 1926, had extensive damage to its east facade from the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, though it was able to be restored at a cost of US$1.4 billion.
Files relating to numerous federal investigations had been housed in 7 World Trade Center. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimated over 10,000 of its cases were affected. Investigative files in the Secret Service’s largest field office were lost, with one Secret Service agent saying, “All the evidence that we stored at 7 World Trade, in all our cases, went down with the building.” Copies of emails in connection with the WorldCom scandal that were later requested by the SEC from Salomon Brothers, a subsidiary of Citigroup housed in the building, were also destroyed.
The NIST report found no evidence supporting conspiracy theories that 7 World Trade Center was brought down by controlled demolition. Specifically, the window breakage pattern and blast sounds that would have resulted from the use of explosives were not observed. The suggestion that an incendiary material such as thermite was used instead of explosives was considered unlikely by NIST because of observations of the fire and the building’s structural response to the fire, and because it is unlikely the necessary quantity of material could have been planted without discovery.
Based on its investigation, NIST reiterated several recommendations it had made in its earlier report on the collapse of the Twin Towers, and urged immediate action on a further recommendation: that fire resistance should be evaluated under the assumption that sprinklers are unavailable; and that the effects of thermal expansion on floor support systems be considered. Recognizing that current building codes are drawn to prevent loss of life rather than building collapse, the main point of NIST’s recommendations was that buildings should not collapse from fire even if sprinklers are unavailable.
In 2003, Asif Usmani, Professor of Structural Engineering at University of Edinburgh, published a paper with two colleagues. They provisionally concluded the fires alone, without any damage from the airplanes, could have been enough to bring down the buildings. In their view, the towers were uniquely vulnerable to the effects of large fires on several floors at the same time. When the NIST report was published, Barbara Lane, with the UK engineering firm Arup, criticized its conclusion that the loss of fire proofing was a necessary factor in causing the collapses; “We have carried out computer simulations which show that the towers would have collapsed after a major fire on three floors at once, even with fireproofing in place and without any damage from plane impact.” Jose L Torero, formerly of the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, pursued further research into the potentially catastrophic effects of fire on real-scale buildings.
Read The Full NIST Report Here: NIST NCSTAR 1A – Collapse Of WTC 7 (PDF)