Citicorp Headquarters

Citicorp Headquarters
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 hurricane season.

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 disastrous problem.

Chief Source: "The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis," The New Yorker, May 29, 1995

Photo: Corbis/Angelo Hornak.