Structural engineer William LeMessurier made a startling discovery in July
1978. The 59-story building that he had designed and completed only a year
before possessed an Achilles heel that could very well result in its
catastrophic collapse. The New York Citicorp building, at that time the
seventh-tallest building in the world, had a one in 16 chance of falling during
The problem lay in its joints. LeMessurier himself discovered that the bracing
system was unusually sensitive to certain kinds of winds known as quartering
winds. It became clear that the bolted joints holding the bracing system
together would prove inadequate in the face of severe winds. The weakest joints
resided on the building's 13th floor.
Even more amazing than this massive oversight, however, was the series of
events that led to the building's eventual structural integrity. LeMessurier
bravely communicated the error to all relevant parties. Rather than futile
finger-pointing, an extraordinary unified effort to solve the problem followed.
LeMessurier and other experts quickly drew up a plan, in which workers would
reinforce the joints by welding heavy steel plates over them. Construction
began immediately, with builders and welders working around the clock to
construct plywood housings around the working areas so as not to disturb
tenants, who remained largely oblivious to the seriousness of the problem.
Amazingly, the day after press caught scent of a story, all the major New York
papers went on strike, saving the project from likely fallout from media hype.
After $4.3 million in repairs, the steel "band-aids" were in place around the
joints, and the building was deemed strong enough to withstand a "700-year
storm," or one that comes around only once in 700 years.
Instead of lawsuits and public panic, the Citicorp crisis was met with
efficient teamwork and a swift solution. In the end, LeMessurier's reputation
was enhanced for his courageous honesty, and the story of Citicorp's building
is now a textbook example of how to respond to a high-profile, potentially
Chief Source: "The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis," The New Yorker, May 29,
Photo: Corbis/Angelo Hornak.
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