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RESPONSE TO TERROR | COLUMN ONE

Finding Hope in the Ruins

* An engineering expert is combing through tons of twisted World Trade Center steel, determined to find ways to make buildings safer.

November 15, 2001|USHA LEE McFARLING | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

BERKELEY — Like so many Americans, Hassan Astaneh sat glued to his TV, shocked, as the twin towers burned. Unlike most viewers, he almost immediately sensed a bigger disaster looming.

"I realized the intensity of the fire was really bad when I saw the fire was that white and yellow. I told my wife, 'That's not looking good,' " the Berkeley civil engineering professor recalled.

"When it collapsed in front of my eyes, I knew I would be involved."

The soft-spoken Iranian American is one of the nation's leading experts on structural steel. Today he finds himself a key part of the disaster's engineering post-mortem, one of only four engineers nationwide armed with emergency grants from the National Science Foundation to study the disaster and its immediate aftermath.

He also finds himself in a painful position--a Muslim angry that his fellow Middle Easterners could cause so much death, an American citizen repeatedly interrogated by federal agents as he tries to keep it from happening again.

He searches the twisted wreckage for clues that could help engineers understand exactly what caused the towers to collapse. More than that, he is determined to use the information to find ways to design safer--and even bombproof--buildings.

"We have to know what happened here," he said. "It's like doing an autopsy."

Astaneh, 53, started his professional life as a civil engineer in Iran. He headed a construction firm for 10 years during the oil boom of the 1970s. In 1982, as the economy soured, he headed to the United States in search of more education. The PhD he earned led to an academic job at the University of Oklahoma and then to Berkeley.

There, Astaneh made his name in the field of seismic engineering, particularly with high-profile work on the safety of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

But the 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City propelled his career in a new direction. When a bomb rocked the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building, Astaneh felt a personal blow. Years earlier, on the building's seventh floor, he had had his first citizenship interview.

"That was my Ellis Island," he said. "Every immigrant remembers that day."

The tragedy sent him back to the engineering literature, seeking ways to protect buildings from bombs. This summer, he began using Berkeley's cavernous engineering labs to test innovative blast protection techniques.

Then came Sept. 11.

Now, Astaneh crisscrosses the country, trying to keep up with his teaching duties at Berkeley while spending every available minute in New York gingerly picking through more than 300,000 tons of crushed steel.

It is a race to find clues, sometimes frustratingly subtle, before the wreckage is hauled away, its valuable steel recycled.

Engineers believe they understand the broad outlines of what happened that horrible day: The intense heat of fires fed by jet fuel softened the steel columns supporting the building and led to a progressive collapse of all the floors.

But they are far from understanding the details. How much damage was caused by the airplanes? How long did the fireproofing material last? What role did the floor supports play? How hot were the fires? How did they spread? How long did the columns survive?

"It's really a building performance study," said Ron Hamburger, a member of an American Society of Civil Engineers disaster response team that is also studying the collapse. The answers are not easy to find. What engineers face is a hodgepodge of twisted steel--some damaged by the planes, some damaged by flames and some pulverized as it crashed to the ground.

"It's a forensic study, and the engineering profession must do it," said Priscilla Nelson, director of the National Science Foundation's division of civil and mechanical systems. "If you understand how the building performed, you can understand how to improve performance."

Not everyone believes that building performance can be greatly improved. The actions that took out the World Trade Center were so damaging and unexpected that many engineers have said there was no way to protect against them. Bomb-proofing buildings, they argue, would be too expensive, and would allow only forbidding cave-like structures.

Nonsense, says Astaneh. "Are you going to say, 'If the Sears Tower is attacked, there's nothing we can do. It's too bad'? " Cost-effective ways exist to build stronger buildings and to retrofit the buildings already occupied, he says.

This summer, in a three-story engineering lab on the Berkeley campus, Astaneh began testing clever technologies that could help buildings withstand even massive blasts. Using a full-scale replica of the first floor of a federal courthouse soon to be constructed in Seattle, Astaneh's team simulated the effects of a blast by removing one of the steel columns supporting the floor and applying 190,000 pounds of pressure.

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