Monday, October 21, 2019

Hard Rock Hotel Collapse: Why?

On Saturday morning, Oct. 12, a hotel under construction at the corner of Rampart and Canal streets in New Orleans, Louisiana underwent a partial collapse, killing three workers and injuring 30.  The Hard Rock Hotel, originally planned as a mixed retail/residential project, had reached a height of 13 stories when something happened to cause a collapse at the top completed level.  A chain of floor collapses ensued, leading to a partial collapse of all the floors above about the seventh level.  The collapse also damaged the two tower cranes that were being used on the project, leading to concerns that they might fall and damage some of the surrounding structures in the densely populated downtown area.  At this writing (Wednesday, Oct. 16), the body of one worker has yet to be recovered.

Any time a construction accident occurs, the entire complex process of planning, management, and actual construction activity gets called into question.  The construction of a large high-rise such as the Hard Rock Hotel is an exercise in meticulous coordination and integration of technologies ranging from computer-aided design to the kind of pumps that can send many tons of concrete all the way up to the roof of a 13-story building.  With so much heavy stuff being supported in temporary ways, it's understandable that something could go wrong. 

For example, the concrete floors that are poured at each level have to set before they are put into compression by tensioning cables.  Try to tighten those cables too early, and you're liable to squash the still-weak concrete.  But wait too long by a day or so, and you've added costly time to the construction schedule.  A huge number of time-critical matters have to be coordinated within a small margin of error for things to go smoothly, and weather, supplier problems, and other external factors can throw a monkey wrench into the works. 

Still, most buildings go up without having multiple floors collapse on each other.  Viewed from the front, the structure looks like a giant finger just scraped all the floors above the seventh and bent them downward. 

A structural engineer named Walter Zehner once worked on the project in its early stages.  When contacted by a reporter from the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, he said that it was much too early even to speculate on the cause of the collapse.  After retreival of the remaining fatality, engineers will have to stabilize the structure so that it won't present an ongoing hazard to surrounding buildings.  Only then will the investigation begin, and it might take months.

Construction was in progress at the time of the collapse, and Zehner says that the remaining eyewitnesses will be asked what exactly was being done at the time.  It's possible that someone accidentally knocked over a support column, for example.  If a heavy just-poured layer of concrete falls twelve or fifteen feet onto the floor below it, the impact could well cause the next floor to collapse, leading to just the kind of destruction that took place.  But all such notions are speculation at this point, and the investigation will reveal a sequence of events that may be traced backwards to a possible cause.

In the recent past there have been some indictments of city inspectors for taking bribes.  A lack of proper municipal oversight might lead to hazardous conditions that could cause such a collapse, but again, this is speculation. 

The most recent collapse of a structure under construction that was covered in this blog was the Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapse in Miami in 2018.  Six people were killed when a concrete-beam bridge collapsed just after being set in place.  The investigation of that accident is still ongoing, but late last year it was revealed that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had determined design errors were at least partly to blame. 

Accidents like the Hard Rock Hotel collapse can happen even if the plans are flawless.  The 1981 collapse of a pedestrian walkway inside the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City was due not to any flaws in design, but to a compromise that the builder made in the support structure during construction.  Investigations may reveal that while the New Orleans hotel plans were correct, the builders may have overlooked something.  Or it could turn out that a single mistake made by one construction worker led to the tragedy. 

Not much is known about the extent of training that typical construction workers receive.  Construction is one of the few remaining fields in which a person without a high-school degree can earn at least in the range of $13 an hour, which is the average construction-worker wage in Louisiana according to a statistic cited by the website  This is scarcely anything to write home about, unless home is Guatemala, in which case it looks good compared to trying to be a subsistence farmer.  Nevertheless, it's attractive enough to draw workers who are willing to face the dangers and difficulties that construction work involves, up to and including the chance of dying in a tragic accident.

We will have to wait to find out what exactly happened in New Orleans to transform a nearly completed building into a pile of dangerous rubble.  And when we do, I hope that any lessons learned will be applied to future construction sites so that tragedies like this happen less and less frequently. 

Sources:  I referred to reports from the ABC News website at, the Lafayette Daily Advertiser website at, and the Wikipedia website "List of structural failures and collapses."  The hourly construction wage statistic came from,-Louisiana.  I discussed the FIU bridge collapse at

No comments:

Post a Comment