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Project Serene
Jamais Cascio, 3 Aug 04

What would you do if you discovered that something you had designed could kill thousands of people?

William J. LeMessurier. a structural engineer who consulted on the construction of the Citicorp building in downtown New York, faced just that question in the summer of 1978. A chance question from a student led him to investigate the stability of his innovative design under unusual -- but not at all uncommon -- wind conditions, such as those which would occur if a hurricane were to hit New York. What he found staggered him: conditions which had a 1 in 16 chance of happening each year could bring down the building.

The story of how LeMessurier reacted to this revelation is fascinating and instructive. He created "Project SERENE" -- "Special Engineering Review of Events Nobody Expected" -- a document detailing precisely how certain engineering decisions led to the possibilty that a too-strong wind could topple a 59-story tower. He then went to the architect, and to Citicorp, to explain the problem, knowing that, in all likelihood, the revelation would lead to lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the end of his career. In the end, the building was repaired in a way that made it quite possibly the most structurally sound tower in Manhattan. LeMessurier's reputation wasn't destroyed; instead, by speaking out, by coming to Citigroup with the problem (as well as a proposed solution), his reputation was enhanced: he did the right thing.

Before the city officials left, they commended LeMessurier for his courage and candor, and expressed a desire to be kept informed as the repair work progressed. Given the urgency of the situation, that was all they could reasonably do. "It wasn't a case of 'We caught you, you skunk,'" Nusbaum says. "It started with a guy who stood up and said, 'I got a problem, I made the problem, let's fix the problem.' If you're gonna kill a guy like LeMessurier, why should anybody ever talk?"

Ultimately, the story of William LeMessurier is both that of the triumph of professional ethics and that of the unanticipated origins of failure. It reminds us that there's a reason it's called "doing the right thing." And it reminds us that "events nobody expected" can't be ignored. The possibility of failure exists in all human endeavors. It's how we respond to the potential for disaster of our own creation that marks our character both as individuals and as a civilization.

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Comments

Wow. I wonder what would happen if this happened today.


Posted by: Howard on 3 Aug 04

Howard,

It happens all the time in industry every day. Stuff gets fixed. People move on.

All you hear about are spectacular successes and spectacular failures. The outliers.


Posted by: M. Simon on 7 Aug 04


During the consultation phase, all questions of security of the individuals who will utilize the
services of a proposed sructure, should be addressed. Security, and safety goes hand in hand in the provision and delivery of any Public or private service endeavor.

If health and safety rules are not addressed nor standards are put in place before the occupants move in, then Imaginations on all levels will be hard to manage. Assumptions may run rampant, and Insurance Comp[anies may or may not profit from the losses that may occur. One just cannot pass off a "mistake", and keep passing "oversights", off as mistakes, and people are dying in mass numbers. It isn't always the destruction of People that enters the mind of a developer. For-Profit is the reason "WHY".

Oversight Committees should be setr up to review any infrastructure where more than 20 people will be inhabitants of for more than 10 minutes.


Posted by: wonnetta wilson on 10 Aug 04



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