The Fire Next Time

Skyscraper safety: the push for NY's high-rises to learn not to burn

Some of the safety features of the Freedom Tower are already being placed at 7 World Trade Center, which is due to be finished soon, including wider staircases and more durable fireproofing, according to Silverstein Properties. "We learned a great deal on 9-11 in terms of how to build buildings, particularly high-rise buildings," Silverstein said in a promotional video shown at the unveiling of the new Freedom Tower design.

But there's more learning to be done. Silverstein's new 7 World Trade Center replaces the old one, which he built in the early 1980s. The last building to fall on 9-11, it is the only steel-frame structure in the United States to completely collapse only because of a fire. The precise reason why 7 WTC fell is still not known, because the release of the NIST report on that collapse has been delayed until October. Silverstein Properties says the FDNY was consulted in designing the building; the developer himself claims that the Freedom Tower design has anticipated all of NIST's recommendations and that both the tower and 7 WTC will exceed the city's building codes.

Ash Tuesday 2001: Firefighters at ground zero
photo: Richard B. Levine
Ash Tuesday 2001: Firefighters at ground zero

Critics of the Port Authority are skeptical of that vow, because buildings constructed on the authority's land are not subject to city codes. The Port Authority has pledged to meet or exceed the codes anyway, but a 1993 deal with the Buildings Department declares that any disagreements between the two agencies are referred to the Port Authority's commissioners.

"The unalterable truth regarding the Freedom Tower and the future World Trade Center is that the entire complex will be as totally immune from all NYC Building and FDNY Fire Codes as was the former WTC," the Skyscraper Safety Campaign said in a statement last week.

The risks to high-rises concern more than the structures rising on ground zero. Any structures built under the 1968 building code are likely to have design features—like large floors and scarce masonry—that could increase the risk of a big fire. The city is in the process of updating its codes, but that won't affect buildings already in place. The city has ordered all high-rise buildings to install sprinkler systems by 2019. The Buildings Department said the latest available estimate was that 200 to 400 high-rises lacked sprinklers.

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