Five Recent Structural Disasters and What We Can Learn From Them

Structural designs don’t always work the way they were intended. Shortcuts in engineering design and poor material engineering choices can lead to disasters that cost human lives. Some failures develop from undetectable flaws that build incrementally to crisis, and other times, engineering catastrophes happen in a terrible, overwhelming instant.

When disaster strikes, people often ask three questions: “What went wrong? Who’s to blame? What could have been done differently?” These questions are important to ask immediately following the disaster and in the years following to learn from the mistakes of the past and to ensure tragedies do not recur. Failures occur even in the most advanced economies, and engineers must always be diligent in their work.

Here are five recent structural disasters and what we can learn from them:

1. Genoese bridge (2018, Italy)

What Happened: On 14 August 2018 during a torrential rainstorm, a 210-metre section of Ponte Morandi bridge in Genoa, Italy collapsed. The Genoa Bridge collapse killed forty-three people and injured sixteen. An 80-metre section of the bridge, including one set of the supports that tower above it, crashed down onto the roof of a factory and other buildings, crushing at least one lorry and plunging huge slabs of concrete into the river below.

What we’ve learned so far: The collapse raised concerns about the general condition of infrastructure in Europe. Studies that followed the bridge’s collapse in Italy, France, and Germany suggest that a significant number of bridges are in need of renovation or replacement due to corrosion and structural deterioration. There has since been harsh light thrown onto the Benetton family, the private owners of the motorway which collected the tolls and who were responsible for maintenance of the motorway including the bridge. Investigators have found that the company inspecting the bridge was housed within the same building as the Benetton’s Autostrade. The calamity in Genoa is now the subject of a criminal inquiry, with 21 people under investigation, including nine employees of Autostrade and three officials from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport.

2. Brumadinho Dam collapse (2019, Brazil)

What Happened: The Brumadinho dam disaster occurred on 25 January 2019 when Dam I, a tailings dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine, suffered a catastrophic failure. The dam is owned by Vale, the same company involved in the 2015 Mariana dam disaster, also in Brazil.  The Mariana dam failure created a flood that destroyed a village and killed 19 people. The 2019 Brumadinho dam collapse released a mudflow that advanced over houses in a rural area in the adjoining city. At least 206 people died as a result of the collapse, with more than 100 still missing months later.

What we’ve learned so far: Reuters reported that Vale was aware the dam breached internal safety guidelines in October of 2018. Vale chief executive Fabio Schvartsman and three other directors have been removed from office following the Brumadinho disaster. The company faces a fine of up to 20% forfeiture of its 2018 revenues, around AUD$10billion, after Brazil’s mining secretary Alexandre Vidigal de Oliveira announced that the company is being investigated for corruption and collusion with safety auditors to misrepresent the integrity of the dam.

3. Grenfell Tower fire (2017, United Kingdom)

What Happened: On 14 June 2017, 72 people lost their lives when a fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of apartments in West London. The fire burned for more than 60 hours. It was the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War. Residents had complained previously that the building was a fire hazard.

What we’ve learned so far: Dame Judith Hackitt undertook an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety which noted broad failures in the UK building industry including ignorance, indifference, lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities, inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement tools.  A separate Grenfell Tower Inquiry is moving into its second phase in 2019. Phase 1 examined what happened on the night of the fire, so that Phase 2 can determine the causes of the disaster, an examination that is still ongoing. The Inquiry has received over 540,000 documents and is reviewing the building’s original design, recent modifications, fire safety measures in place at the time of the fire, governance and the response of emergency responders.  A cladding material applied by builders upgrading the apartment contained a combustible polyethylene insulation, the burned, melted and fuelled a vertically transmitted inferno. The dangerous material has been discovered in hundreds of other towers in the UK, Australia and other countries.

Given the disturbing similarity of the Neo 200 fire at Spencer Street, Melbourne in February 2019 to the Grenfell Tower fire, The Warren Centre is currently working with government agencies, industry partners, professional engineers and leading academics to review Fire Safety Engineering in Australia. To learn more or access our FREE reports, click here.

4. Rana Plaza building collapse (2013, Bangladesh)

What Happened: On 24 April 2013, an eight-storey garment factory building named “Rana Plaza” collapsed in Bangladesh. Deep cracks had appeared in the building the previous day. Sometime before 9am, floors began to vanish, and workers started falling. Rana Plaza took less than 90 seconds to collapse, killing 1,134 people. It is considered to be one of the deadliest building collapses in world history. More than 2,500 people were also injured in the disaster.

What we’ve learned: Much of the attention to this event focused labour rights of workers in the ready-made garment industry and western buying behaviour rather than on the structural issues with the building itself. The building’s collapse did lead to two major safety initiatives set up in the disaster’s aftermath, the Bangladesh Accord, which has helped to address 130,000 safety problems in 1,600 factories, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, although this ceased operations as planned on December 31, 2018. In 2016, murder charges were brought against 38 people connected, but little information about their connection to the building’s collapse and subsequent trials could be found. Progress has been made in Bangladesh, but the safety initiatives are ending, unions are being stifled, and wages are still the lowest in the world.

5. Florida Bridge Collapse (2018, United States)

What Happened: In March 2018 a 53-metre bridge collapsed in Miami at Florida International University killing six persons who were crushed or struck by falling concrete and steel. Eight others were injured.  

What we’ve learned so far: The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued an interim report that concludes that errors by the design engineers were responsible for the fatal accident. Engineers responsible for the design overestimated of the strength capacity of a critical section of the support and also underestimated the load on that section. Concrete and reinforcing steel in the bridge was measured and confirmed to have been proper materials. The bridge had only been placed into position a few days, and the Miami Herald newspaper reported on cracks in the concrete as it was suspended above the highway. “When the cracks appeared, people were concerned and troubled,” a bridge design expert told the newspaper in an email. “But the cracks were dismissed in what seems to have been an ad-hoc process of consensus within an informal committee of non-qualified persons. The NTSB will certainly have something to say about that whole process. The NTSB will also have much to say about the review procedures used during the design phase.” The investigation continues.  In early March 2019, Munilla Construction Management, the main contractor for the bridge, declared bankruptcy.

Given the complexity of modern engineering projects, answers can be hard to find when disasters occur. Technical investigations produce detailed forensic reports, and the atmosphere for transparency and accountability is greater than ever before.

Learn more about The Warren Centre’s work on Professional Performance here and Fire Safety Engineering professionalisation here.  Help be part of the drive towards accountability to society as the engineering profession builds for the future.


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This story is featured in the 29 March 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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