Hartford Civic Center Collapse
January 18, 2008 7:43 AM   Subscribe

It could have been the greatest disaster in US history. On January 18, 1978, 30 years ago today, the 1400 ton 2 1/2 acre roof of the Hartford Civic Center, covered by a blanket of snow and ice, suddenly and completely collapsed, damaging almost all of the seats underneath. Just four hours earlier there was a basketball game packed with 5000 fans. Had it collapsed then, many, if not most, of the fans and players could have died.

The roof was designed with help from some of the best civil engineering consultants, universities, and professors in the industry and had a special computer analyzed 'space frame' design--meant to equally balance the load so that lighter and cheaper material could be used. (Three days later, the space-frame roof of the Long Island University C.W. Post Dome Auditorium (pdf) collapsed "like a giant cracked eggshell".) Lessons learned.
posted by eye of newt (37 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why Buildings Stand Up and Why Buildings Fall Down, both by Mario Salvadori, mention this incident and talk a little about what happened. (Unfortunately, even though I've read both more than once, I forget exactly what he said). Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down by J.E. Gordon also covers this, I believe. All three are easy to read but very informative books on structural engineering/analysis.
posted by DU at 7:57 AM on January 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


SNOW CAN'T BEND STEEL THEY PULLED IT.

Seriously, I love things like this because they illustrate the extent to which engineering is an iterative process, and often requires failure in order to develop.

However in one of the links, it was mentioned how inspectors had noticed excessive deflections in the roof when it was still being assembled on the ground. Something should have been done at that point to figure out why the deflection was so great before installation, and post-installation, someone should have been tasked with figuring out why the model was wrong, and precisely what forces were operating in the roof.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:05 AM on January 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


The NTSB also recently released their prelim report (PDF) on the Minneapolis Bridge collapse.
posted by smackfu at 8:09 AM on January 18, 2008


I remember some people in the Hartford insurance industry talking about this after it happened. It wasn't a complete surprise to all concerned; there were some companies right in Hartford who refused to insure the building because of the 'nontraditional' design. I'm not sure who actually did insure it, but I think it was actually a non-Hartford company.

I can't find any links to the insurance angle now, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:14 AM on January 18, 2008


I remember seeing something about this on one of those engineering disaster shows and I was amazed at how such a minor (from a layman's standpoint) structural alteration could have such a catastrophic effect.

If nothing else, it gave me a lot of respect for architects and engineers, and how important it is that they know their craft. I think it was the first time I realized that I probably couldn't do that job in such a way as to not get people killed. I just don't think I have the necessary attention to detail.

It really was just blind luck that a lot of people didn't die.
posted by quin at 8:23 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I totally forgot about this. I had actually been to a Whalers game just a few days before this happened. Scary stuff.
posted by psmealey at 8:27 AM on January 18, 2008


I had actually been to a Whalers game just a few days before this happened. Scary stuff.

Nothing has to collapse to make the Whalers scary.
posted by GuyZero at 8:28 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


It could have been the greatest disaster in US history.

Obligatory Wikipedia link.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:29 AM on January 18, 2008


Hey, the Whalers were terrible, but at least I get to tell people that I saw the great Gordie Howe play live and in person.
posted by psmealey at 8:30 AM on January 18, 2008


n earlier disaster in the same city. I had gone to school with twins, who lost both parents in this one:

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?GRid=22308&page=gr
posted by Postroad at 8:33 AM on January 18, 2008


Pastabagel -- this doesn't sound like part of the "iterative process." Sounds like negligence.

"The excessive deflections apparent during construction were brought to the engineer's attention multiple times. The engineer, confident in his design and the computer analysis which confirmed it, ignored these warnings and did not take the time to recheck its work. An ethical engineer would pay close attention to unexpected deformations and investigate their causes."

I didn't see it in any of the links: What penalties were faces by the people who built this place after it collapsed?
posted by chasing at 8:35 AM on January 18, 2008


For reference, it was insured by Travelers.
posted by cashman at 8:38 AM on January 18, 2008


What penalties were faces by the people who built this place after it collapsed?

March 28, 1984 New York Times:

"HARTFORD, March 27 -- The Hartford City Council has unanimously accepted a settlement in a lawsuit over the 1978 collapse of the Hartford Civic Center roof.

The settlement, agreed to Monday night, could net the city $1.8 million.

The Travelers Insurance Company, the co-plaintiff, could get more than $10.6 million. A spokesman refused to say if it had accepted the settlement.

The ice- and snow-covered roof crashed down in the early morning of Jan. 18, 1978.

The main defendants were Bethlehem Steel, the Gilbane Construction Company and the Crow Construction Company, all involved in construction of the roof; the engineers, Fraiolo-Blum-Yesselmen, and the architects, Danos & Associates and Vincent G. Kling, which designed the roof."
posted by cashman at 8:41 AM on January 18, 2008


5000 deaths? Invade... [spins wheel] The Netherlands!!!

And SILENCE to all you traitors that say this just a ploy to seize their dank bud.
posted by LordSludge at 8:54 AM on January 18, 2008


Actually, I lived in Hartford and was working for The Hartford Courant at the time. There were indeed design flaws, coupled with some bent steel, which was only noticed after the coliseum roof (not that whole civic center roof) had collapsed. Photos taken by a Courant photographer were used in later litigation. The insurance companies in Hartford also took a hit because some of them, through interlocking processes, had insured the center, but because the coverage was spread out, it wasn't as damaging financially as it could of been. If both the coliseum and the insurance companies had been hit to the maximum, it would have been disastrous for the city's economy. The design was the same as that used more recently on the Jacob Javits Center in New York, presumably fixed. It was a truly unusual design. People all over town that night heard the bending and crash of the metal. An amusing side note: one of the companies involved in assessing the collapse was named Lev Zetlin; the first day stories all referred to the company as Led Zeppelin.
posted by etaoin at 9:05 AM on January 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Four years later, the Grateful Dead would pay tribute to the collapse with a righteous version of Samson & Delilah. "If I had my way, I'd tear this whole building down!"
posted by Banky_Edwards at 9:07 AM on January 18, 2008


Clarify: the bent steel was only noticed by the public and people who would do something about it after it had collapsed.

Life in Connecticut in the 1970s was darned interesting: the Peter Reilly case, the Donna Lee Bakery murders*, the Civic Center coliseum collapse, and the perpetual fights over whether to ever allow the circus to come to town again, given the fact that there were a lot of circus fire survivors still around. See ref above to the circus fire.

*Hint: if you're ever being robbed by someone in a mask, don't rip it off and say, I recognize you and I'm going to tell the police!
posted by etaoin at 9:10 AM on January 18, 2008


i wrote a model here which concludes you're safer using cheaper materials!

doesn't just happen in architecture. it's happening right now in american finance.
posted by bruce at 9:13 AM on January 18, 2008



Hell etaoin, life in Connecticut is still interesting.

I dare you to walk, unarmed, through Frog Hollow (Hartford).
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 9:21 AM on January 18, 2008


THe UAB faculty member in the "collapsed" link has a whole series of these case studies that are pretty interesting.
posted by TedW at 9:51 AM on January 18, 2008


January 23, 1978, "Snow-Cleanup Costs in Region Mounting - New York Times

-In the Hartford roof crash, the Travelers Insurance Companies said the roof was valued at a little over $2 million in a $24,269,680 insurance policy, and interruption of business had been insured for up to $1.5 million.
posted by cashman at 10:15 AM on January 18, 2008


Hell etaoin, life in Connecticut is still interesting.

Too bad there are no more key parties, though.
posted by psmealey at 10:22 AM on January 18, 2008


I too lived in Hartford at this time. Whether it was Pizza pie sliced in a grid rather than spoke pattern or the Downtown Dunkin Donuts that closed up each night at 6pm, weirdness pervaded the region.

Whatever happened to good old Fraiolo-Blum-Yesselmen, the engineers?
Career ending over-sight or is there a way to get past this kind of a professional blunder?
posted by Fupped Duck at 10:28 AM on January 18, 2008


The biggest problem with any innovative and highly engineered design is that it is still the responsibility of largely uneducated laymen to implement the design. The walkway collapse in the midwest was the same thing: A critical design was modified on-site to something that seemed like the equivalent design, with disastrous results.

Not that there weren't engineering flaws here, but it's very difficult to get an unorthodox design built without extensive training of the crews involved. Because of the money involved, there is always going to be a temptation to take a "good enough" shortcut.
posted by maxwelton at 10:33 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is a prime example of why I never go into buildings.
posted by chasing at 11:11 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


So wait. Now we're celebrating averted disasters? Nobody looks for excuses to get drunk and fall down more than I do* but there must be some line that is drawn in which we look back in rememberance and tip a glass to the fallen.

Hurricane Katrina, definitely. Hurricane Bob? Not so much. Unless you're from Rhode Island. Then maybe.

* except perhaps my ex-wife and some of her friends and captain johnson come to think of it most people look for excuses to get drunk and fall down more than I do but that's beside the point.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:23 AM on January 18, 2008


"Pizza pie sliced in a grid"? So you are saying the town is know for re-engineering perfectly good design.
posted by bitslayer at 11:45 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Whatever happened to good old Fraiolo-Blum-Yesselmen, the engineers?

They got acquired recently. But before that they were still doing some large projects after the collapse.
posted by smackfu at 11:50 AM on January 18, 2008


Hell etaoin, life in Connecticut is still interesting.
I dare you to walk, unarmed, through Frog Hollow (Hartford).


Frog Hollow? Funny, I was just telling someone about that and the pretense that it was named for anything other than the French Canadians who lived there. And on Park Street, there were the Spanish-speaking storeowners who would copy each others' signs; hence, a number of them that all offered "applinces" for sale. Ha! Ever go to Kenny's bar on Capitol Ave.?
posted by etaoin at 12:02 PM on January 18, 2008


BITSLAYER: Hartford is the kind of town that prefers to cut a round pie into a grid. Or so they did in the early 80s, against all good sense.

SMACKFU: Surely somebody had to get fired...
posted by Fupped Duck at 12:03 PM on January 18, 2008


We used to call things like this WADDS - Works As Designed, Design Sucks. As opposed to good designs compromised by shoddy construction. Of course, the end result is still the same the difference is in who gets indicted.
posted by tommasz at 12:20 PM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


FWIW, a portion of the roof of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City collapsed in 1979.
The American Institute of Architects had given the building an "Honor" award in 1976 and thousands of its members were at its annual national conference there less than 24 hours before the 1979 collapse.
Don't want to draw any general conclusions here, but KC is also the scene of the "walkway collapse" (1981, 114 dead) mentioned above . . .
posted by flug at 1:37 PM on January 18, 2008


DU -
Gordon's Structures doesn't cover this, at least not the edition I have, which was published in 1978.

Other interesting reading on this general topic is Henry Petroski's To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. The KC Hyatt walkway collapse is the opening topic of that book.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 1:52 PM on January 18, 2008


maxwelton writes "The biggest problem with any innovative and highly engineered design is that it is still the responsibility of largely uneducated laymen to implement the design. The walkway collapse in the midwest was the same thing: A critical design was modified on-site to something that seemed like the equivalent design, with disastrous results."

But in that case, "The contractor modified this detail to use 2 hanger rods instead of one (as shown in fig-2) and the engineer approved the design change without checking it."
posted by krinklyfig at 3:30 PM on January 18, 2008


Whoops. May be referring to a different accident.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:32 PM on January 18, 2008


Pizza pie sliced in a grid

Yes, this is a horrible Connecticut abomination that I never quite wrapped my mind around in the time that I lived there. Apparently there are some places in the Midwest where this is considered standard as well (although I've never been to any; maybe this is just a rumor to make it seem more normal). I've never gotten a good explanation of where it came from. On the bright side, it seems to be declining in popularity -- New Haven style (New York / Neapolitan-ish) seems to be winning.

Square-cut pizza always struck me as bizarre because not only is it hard to eat, but it requires many more cuts than regular slices would. It's just such a bad idea you wonder how it ever gained traction.

I dare you to walk, unarmed, through Frog Hollow (Hartford).

As bad as Frog Hollow may be today, it's miles better than it was in the early 90s. I was frequently warned against even driving through it because carjackings were such a problem. The impression I got was that the police wouldn't even go there at night; they'd just wait until the next morning to go through and count the bodies. That may have been slightly exaggerated but it was definitely pretty grim.

In other Hartford-related news, I was saddened to hear just a few days ago that they're planning on demolishing the Connecticut Mutual Building on Asylum Hill (sort of the landmark building in the area) to make way for parking lots. You would think that a city that butchered its waterfront for one interstate project and cut the city itself in two with another, and whose only real claim to fame any more is mostly historical, would go a little easier with the wrecking ball, but apparently not.

Strange town, Hartford.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:52 PM on January 18, 2008


meant to equally balance the load so that lighter and cheaper material could be used

As this is the very essence of engineering, I don't think there's any case that this was unique.

Once the frame was in its final position but before the roof deck was installed, its deflection was measured to be twice that predicted by computer analysis, and the engineers were notified. They, however, expressed no concern and responded that such discrepancies between the actual and the theoretical should be expected (Levy and Salvadori, 1992).

Funny, Frank Lloyd Wright (not an engineer by training) showed some of the same arrogance when confronting Racine, Wis. building inspectors who would not let him build the Johnson Wax headquarters using his lily pad column design. He staged a demonstration in which one of the columns was loaded with 60 tons of concrete before it cracked. This was five times the amount that the inspectors had decreed it needed to support.

Sure, we'd like all our buildings to be overbuilt to 500% of spec, but that's just not going to happen.
posted by dhartung at 4:57 PM on January 19, 2008


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