Interviews will examine why trade center collapsed

The federal agency charged with investigating the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, will begin interviewing survivors and emergency crews in the next few weeks in its effort to determine why the twin towers fell after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into the buildings.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has hired a contractor to interview 800 people by phone and conduct 575 face-to-face interviews over the next four to six months. There also will be interviews with 15 focus groups of those who were at the scene.

Researchers are trying to determine the physical sequence of events that led to the collapse of the New York City landmark and the deaths of 2,823 people. The goal of the $16 million investigation is to identify any flaws in structural design and to help minimize damage and injuries in future building fires and accidents.

The interviews are a key part of the investigation because they will help determine if lives could have been saved with better evacuation training and procedures, NIST officials said at a news conference yesterday.

Interview subjects will be selected at random from 100,000 people who were issued security badges to work the towers, said lead investigator Shyam Sunder.

Investigators will find focus group and face-to-face interview subjects by using the badge list, news reports and by asking those interviewed for suggestions about others to talk to.

Usually, the institute develops and sets standards for industry and scientific organizations. But because of its technical expertise, it has been investigating the collapse of the towers since 2002.

Sunder said the interviews were delayed until now so investigators could develop questions and interview methods that would turn up useful information without being too intrusive.

"We wanted to make sure we were doing it right," said Michael Newman, an NIST spokesman.

The NIST draft report is scheduled to be completed Sept. 30, 2004.

An investigation by a civil engineering group and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2002 found that the towers withstood the initial impact of the airliners, but that the crashes destroyed most of the stairwells and sprinkler systems.

Flying debris probably jarred loose spray-on fireproofing, while intense heat softened the structural steel to the point of collapse, the FEMA report said.

Congress authorized the National Institute of Standards and Technology to investigate the towers' collapse shortly after the FEMA report was issued. Critics faulted FEMA for not interviewing survivors on how the fire spread and for not focusing on evacuation procedures and emergency response.

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