Saying goodbye to a true architecture, engineering & construction forensics legend

Debra Rubin, of ENR, shares the sad news of the passing of an AEC forensics grandmaster:

John M. Hanson, who, as president, helped guide the growth of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. into an industry-leading forensics and failures engineer and who led probes into high-profile collapses of the Kansas City Hyatt hotel walkway in 1981 and the New York State Thruway Schoharie Creek Bridge in 1987, died on May 26 in Green Valley, Ariz., at 84. The firm did not release the cause of death.

Hanson, a PhD structural engineer who joined Northbrook, Ill.-based WJE in 1972, was its first non-founder president, from 1979 to 1992. The firm’s probe of the Hyatt disaster, which killed 114 guests, pointed to changed design parameters, which overloaded walkway connectors, and poor communication.

If you aren’t too familiar with the infamous story, at least take a moment to browse through the Wikipedia entry on the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. Here is what Hanson and his collaborators uncovered:

Investigators concluded that the basic problem was a lack of proper communication between Jack D. Gillum and Associates and Havens Steel. In particular, the drawings prepared by Jack D. Gillum and Associates were only preliminary sketches but were interpreted by Havens as finalized drawings. Jack D. Gillum and Associates failed to review the initial design thoroughly, and accepted Havens’ proposed plan without performing basic calculations that would have revealed its serious intrinsic flaws — in particular, the doubling of the load on the fourth-floor beams. It was later revealed that when Havens called Jack D. Gillum and Associates to propose the new design, the engineer they spoke with simply approved the changes over the phone, without viewing any sketches or performing calculations.

The aftermath was fairly dramatic:

The engineers employed by Jack D. Gillum and Associates who had approved the final drawings were found culpable of gross negligence, misconduct and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering by the Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyor. All lost their respective engineering licenses in the states of Missouri, Kansas and Texas and their membership with ASCE. Although the company of Jack D. Gillum and Associates was discharged of criminal negligence, it lost its license to be an engineering firm.

At least $140 million was awarded to victims and their families in both judgments and settlements in subsequent civil lawsuits; a large amount of this money was from Crown Center Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hallmark Cards which was the owner of the hotel real estate – like many hoteliers, Hyatt operates hotels for a fee as a management company, and does not usually own the buildings. Life and health insurance companies are likely to have absorbed even larger uncompensated losses in policy payouts.

The Hyatt collapse remains a classic model for the study of engineering ethics and errors, as well as disaster management. As an engineer of record for the Hyatt project, Jack D. Gillum (1924–2012) occasionally shared his experiences at engineering conferences in the hope of preventing future mistakes.

So here’s to John Hanson, a real pioneer for truth in the AEC industry whose tireless failure analysis work paved the way for better and safer buildings.


Image courtesy University of Texas’ Learning from Building Failure blog