A view from Dave Trott: Never stop questioning
A view from Dave Trott

Never stop questioning

In 1977, Citicorp built its New York headquarters on 53rd and Lexington.

It was 59 stories tall, standing on four, nine-storey-high stilts, with a 45-degree angled roof.

It was on stilts because they couldn’t move the church at ground level.

They couldn’t build on the plot, so they had to build in the airspace above.

And, because of the church, the stilts couldn’t be placed at the corners, where they’d be strongest, they had to be placed at the sides.

So the angled roof was a 400-tonne, tuned mass-damper to compensate for movement.

A Princeton structural-engineering student, Diane Hartley, decided to write her thesis on it.

She went to the company that built it; William LeMessurier was the structural engineer.

A junior engineer, Joel Weinstein, gave her access to all calculations and blueprints.

They even offered her a $10,000 stipend to let them use her thesis for a book.

She was thrilled, until she began going through the numbers.

She just couldn’t make them add up the way the structural engineers had.

According to her, they only calculated for high winds to strike at the sides, which was fine if the stilts were at the corners.

But they weren’t, the stilts were at the side, and when she calculated the effect of the wind on the corners, the strength was 60% of what their calculations said.

She called the junior engineer back and asked how this was possible.

He mumbled something about the columns being strong enough, then hung up.

She checked the numbers, then she called back, but no-one would take her call. 

Even when she called to discuss the stipend for the book, they wouldn’t call her back.

She kept trying, but eventually she just gave up and got on with her life.

She never knew what happened after her call, and why no-one ever called her back.

She wouldnt find out why until 20 years later.

In fact, her query had worked its way up to the top of the engineering firm, where they found out her calculations were right and theirs were wrong. 

They panicked and realised they had erected a building that could fail in high winds.

If the building fell, it could kill thousands of people.

The panic was the realisation that the 200 main bolts in the building could fail. 

The bolts had to have two-inch-thick steel plates welded over them, it took two months.

To avoid a panic, the work was done in secret, at night, without anyone knowing.

The NYPD stood ready to evacuate a 10-block radius, 2,000 Red Cross personnel were on standby, and three weather services were monitored 24/7. 

Luckily, the newspapers were on strike, and a predicted hurricane never arrived.

And everyone was sworn to secrecy, so nobody said a word.

Until 20 years later, in 1995 Joe Morgenstern overheard the story at a party.

He investigated it and wrote it up for New Yorker magazine.

PBS read his expose and turned it into an astonishing documentary.

And one night, nearly 20 years after she graduated, Diane Hartley’s husband called her downstairs to watch TV saying: “Honey, you won’t believe this”.

Which is when she found the reason why the structural engineers never returned her calls.

What she had spotted was something that the people who built the building didn’t spot.

And they were so involved in keeping it a secret, they wouldn’t talk to anyone.

But now, at least she knows that questioning those numbers saved thousands of lives.

And that’s why we should learn the value of speaking up and asking questions.

We shouldn’t assume senior people know more than we do.

However big, and powerful, and experienced, and infallible, we think they are.

However frightened we are of looking silly.

If we don’t understand something, the worst thing we can do is to stay silent. 

As Diane Hartley says: “We should never stop questioning.”

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three