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I don’t like Mondays…


November 16, 2010
By Peter Sells

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Nov. 16, 2010

A lot of people say they don’t like Mondays, and this week may be an extremely bad example. It was the mother of all Mondays, Mondissimo, a mega Monday. As I wrote this Monday night, two building disasters had taken place in the preceding 24 hours, claiming as many as 100 lives.

Nov. 16, 2010

A lot of people say they don’t like Mondays, and this week may be an extremely bad example. It was the mother of all Mondays, Mondissimo, a mega Monday. As I wrote this Monday night, two building disasters had taken place in the preceding 24 hours, claiming as many as 100 lives. It is the nature of emerging news stories that estimates of fatalities usually fluctuate until the incident is stabilized, but as I was writing this blog, the figures indicated 49 had died in a fire that completely involved a 28-storey apartment building in Shanghai, China (as of press time, the number has climbed to 53), and 42 were killed in the collapse of a five-storey building in New Delhi, India (this number had reached 65 by press time).

These events occurred in the immediate wake of the gas explosion in a Mexican hotel, which claimed the lives of seven people on Sunday, Nov. 14, including five Canadian tourists.

I’d like to look at each of these disasters and try to make some sense out of the chaos and torment that has been inflicted on so many families. I believe in getting to root causes, identifying circumstances or situations that enable unfortunate events to occur. I also believe that without digging too deep, we can find a common thread in these three incidents. I will start with a big disclaimer: I am working with the same facts to which you have access, and these facts are both early and changing.

First, the Mexican hotel explosion. The hotel is located near a marsh and on top of a cave complex. An early speculated cause was a gas buildup from a nearby marsh, which led to gas leaking into the hotel from beneath. This scenario is already being discounted as much less likely than a gas leak from the hotel’s own systems. Regardless of the source, a proper system of detectors should have detected an incipient leak well before it reached a flammable mixture with air. If it turns out that the source was natural, the design and maintenance of the building’s foundation would bear looking into.

Next, the Shanghai highrise fire. The building had been under renovation in recent weeks and reports say the fire either started in the contractor’s scaffolding or spread to the scaffolding and then effectively auto-exposed the entire structure. I’m not familiar with fire codes in that part of China, but it is not hard to imagine that any meaningful standards of active or passive fire protection should have mitigated the scope of this fire before it consumed a whole building. I can’t help but suspect that either corners were cut in the interest of efficiency, or someone in a position of oversight was asleep at the switch.

Finally, the New Delhi collapse. Recent heavy rains in the area had flooded the basement, perhaps undermining the foundation. A local official is widely quoted as being suspicious of poor construction and is initiating an investigation. I can’t envision a sudden precipitous collapse with no warning indications of structural problems in an otherwise sound building. Therefore, either warning signs were ignored, or the building was a collapse waiting to happen. Unfortunate events are inevitably the result of a convergence of circumstances. In this case, the rains may have been the precipitating event (pun intended, of course), but the loss of life could have perhaps been averted through the development of rigid codes, training, inspection, enforcement or the early recognition of instability.

That last sentence essentially forms the common thread among these three events. A stitch in time is worth a pound of cure (or is it an ounce of prevention saves nine?). There are no doubt many heroic stories of rescue to be told this week, but each of those also involves grave risk to the occupants and responders. All of us are safer when our teammates with the clipboards and pencils are given the tools and opportunity to do their jobs effectively.


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