IN JUNE 1981, elevated walkways spanning the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Kansas City collapsed during a Friday evening social event, resulting in more than 100 fatalities.
In April 1987, a bridge carrying the New York State Thruway over the Schoharie Creek near Albany collapsed, sending 10 motorists to their deaths.
In October 1999, a glass window fell from the 29th floor of the CNA building in Chicago, killing a pedestrian on the street below.
Fortunately, catastrophic failures like these are rare. When they occur, the importance of obtaining the right technical experts to assist in the ensuing investigation should not be underestimated. Not only can experienced experts provide leadership for technical aspects of an investigation, their input can be quite useful when dealing with non-technical issues as well.
THE INITIAL CALL
When called to participate in the investigation of a catastrophic failure, the first impulse of an engineer who specializes in this type of work is to drop everything and head for the site. While immediate response is a necessary and an important part of a successful investigation, there are several items an experienced expert will consider before accepting the assignment.
First, it is important to check for potential conflicts. Failure to do so can lead to embarrassing or worse situations when a conflict is found after the assignment is accepted and work has begun. An experienced expert will ask: What is the building or structure that collapsed? Has my firm worked on it previously? Who are the involved parties? Have we worked for any of them before?
Most firms maintain databases of current and past assignments that, by using today's technology, can be checked quickly for potential conflicts. It should be noted, however, that previous work on the structure or for one of the involved parties by experts or their firms does not necessarily create a conflict. Often the previous involvement is not directly related to the current situation, and parties are willing to provide waivers or otherwise agree that no conflict exists.
Before accepting the assignment, the expert should develop a clear understanding of who the client will be and what the caller sees as the expert's general scope of work. Given a choice, most experts would prefer to work for one of the major players in the …