Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Weaubleau's Round Rocks

Driving back to Minnesota with the family after Thanksgiving, Passenger attempted to amuse Driver with area factoids from Wiki and its links. We were on Highway 13 approaching Osceola, MO, which is north-northeast of Weaubleau. So that prompted a search for information on the enigmatic Weaubleau Eggs, aka “round rocks.”

Google offers this photo:
Thousands have been found in the vicinity, but they're rare elsewhere on Earth. The most common sizes run from golf-balls to grapefruit. Over the years, residents of Weaubleau and Osceola built stairways and walls from them.

Most are round or ovoid, a little flattened on one side. Cracking them open reveals that the bulk of each egg is chert, a hard, glossy sedimentary rock that results when silica replaces portions of calcium-carbonate limestone. Flint is one type of chert.

Weaubleau eggs often have a small piece of gray or greenish mudstone at the center, hence comparisons to eggs and their yolks. Sometimes the mudstone may hold the fossil of a conodont, a tiny, toothy eel. 

Round rocks sometimes occur together in ancient gravel deposits. This geology paper on the Weaubleau crater calls them shale-filled paleokarst pockets. Here's a photo from that paper:
The current consensus among the rock-minded is that the round rocks originated with a meteorite impact circa 320-340 million years ago. Given that there are three non-concentric rings visible with synthetic-aperture radar, the cause may have been two or three serial impacts in close proximity. At any rate, something produced rings of shocked rock, the largest of which is about 12 miles in diameter.

Weaubleau counts as one of the Top 50 biggest meteor impacts detected on Earth, and offers more visible remnants than the average site. 

There's another possible distinction, even rarer if confirmed. Weaubleau could be one of a near-linear string of craters along the 38th Parallel:
If these are not coincidental, the Weaubleau event would be part of the only known serial-meteorite-impact on Earth.

But this caveat: Planetary geologists say a serial impact on Earth is improbable. Given the Earth's relatively weak gravity well, compared to that of Jupiter, terrestial gravity is supposed to be too weak to break up even poorly cemented comets. So before agreeing, they'd want more proof that the 38th Parallel craters are of the same age. 

But the Moon appears to have several crater strings from serial impacts, so it's not impossible.

Back to rock hunting. The best place to find a specimen is near the rim of the crater. North of Osceola, we turned off the main highway and found this estimable egg in a ditch:
It's a little more than seven inches in diameter, and weighs 13 pounds, so it's on the upper end of egg size. And no, we don't plan on breaking it open to see if there's a baby conodont fossil inside.

What would form such odd objects, and in such great numbers? One TV news account surmised that the eggs were formed immediately by the impact and flew like so many cannonballs from ground zero. More likely is that the impact threw out little pieces of mudstone from the crater that, in time, prompted chert formation. The phrase doesn't roll off the tongue like the term "cannonball," but rockhounds say that Weaubleau eggs are spherical nodules of chert that nucleated around siltstone clasts.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rena's Box Score: Storms set the pace

There are hints that a newly invigorated container removal effort at the MV Rena, still grounded off New Zealand, may not have much longer to operate. 

Rena's hull is seriously cracked and likely to finish breaking in two if the weather gets bad enough. It's amazing to me that it's still in one piece at all, given that the bow has been on the rocks for more than two months while the stern remains afloat, defying tides and ocean swells.

And storms. A 30-knot storm, with 13-foot waves, is forecast for the weekend. It'll be rough if anybody's working inside:
The crane-carrying barge Sea Tow 60 has stopped trying to lift containers, moving aside for the heavy lifter Smit Borneo. Here's a picture of Borneo on its way to the port of Tauranga, NZ, taking waves in stride:
Borneo has since arrived at Rena's location. It was lifting six containers at a time with the pedestal mounted 500-ton boom, but heavy weather and then a mechanical issue suspended the crane work. Here's containerized cargo arriving on shore:
Here's the current box score ... Out of 1,368 containers on board when the ship hit Astrolabe reef:
  • Still on board, mostly below deck: 1,072
  • Fell off and whereabouts unknown: 65
  • Fell off, but rounded up: 25
  • Removed by crane: 206
Containers are still breaking away. I'll post another note after the storm passes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

RED Dawn: Digital Cameras, Moving into Movies

How often does one get to meet one's movie hero?

Not often. I did interview Harrison Ford once about his helicopter training when I was writing The God Machine, and also John Lithgow for Harvard Magazine, but those talks were by telephone, so they don't count as up-close.

The hero-meeting I have in mind was three weeks ago, when I was at a location shoot in Maine for the History Channel. The show will air for the centennial of Titanic's loss: April 2012.

The object in question is the Red One digital camera, which is something I've wanted to see since it came on the market four years ago. The Red One offers a max resolution of 4,480 by 2,304 at 60 frames per second, which is well beyond what any television can reproduce. It's movie quality.

The production unit for Lone Wolf Documentary Group was using the Red on a wheeled crane, which will give a cinema-like feel. 

An operator holding a remote control was responsible for changing the angle, focal length, and focus of the camera. Here's the business end:
Here's a profile, from the company:
Typical attachments to the body are a hi-res monitor, filter,  a battery pack, a storage device, and a carrying handle. The Red is very much a modular design.

I know there are other brands of digital cameras now capable of moviemaking, and a newer Red model, the Epic, surpasses the Red One in features like pixel array. But the One has a special place because it opened the door to more independents by greatly lowering production costs. I first picked up a Sony video camera in 1980, starting reading American Cinematographer, and wondered how long it would be before video could match the 35mm cameras from Arri and Panavision.

I talked to a technician on the set and he said the latest video equipment records light better than filmstock in some respects, including underlit scenes. Very bright spots of the image are still a challenge for video, which tends to wash them out, but bracketing can improve the rendering. 

It's not just a question of resolution; a successful product takes the right combination of lenses, sensors, mounts, image-processing software and workflow, and storage that can reliably handle the huge flows of data. The Red One started with hard-drive storage, but now flash cards are common.

There weren't many skeptics about what a Red One could do after Peter Jackson took up the company's offer to try it out. Jackson did more than play around with it: he hauled two of them to New Zealand and came back with a short-form WWI costumer called Crossing the Line, filmed in two days. It drew a lot of attention at the National Association of Broadcasters' 2007 convention. Here's a low-resolution clip from it, posted on YouTube:
Since then, many major productions have dropped film stock and gone Red, including Social Network and Contagion. Here are more titles

There was a long waiting list at first; now availability is better. Renting the Red One body and a package of commonly used accessories costs about $2,500 per week from an LA rental house. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rena's New Phase: Container-Plucking

The removal of Heavy Fuel Oil, diesel, and lubricating oil from the Rena is complete enough that the next phase, container removal, has begun.

We're told that a grand total of 1,262 containers remain on the Rena, topside and in the holds. A crane on the Sea Tow 60 has pulled off eighteen to date, after workers freed the corner attachments with cutting torches. Here's a short NZ news item with a video clip.

Pulling containers from unstable stacks and lifting them with a crane that's sitting on another ship -- a ship that's moving independently from the Rena -- is difficult and dangerous, even in the best of weather. Getting close enough to use a cutting torch and attach cables means a rigger is close enough to get smashed. 

Despite the salvor's best efforts, it's likely that hundreds of containers will end up in the water anyway, particularly if a storm comes along. And the work is so difficult and dangerous it can't be rushed with the thought of beating the storms. The best information I've seen on the ups and downs of the salvage work can be found at this blog, Antipodean Mariner. Check it out!

Six to eight containers off would be a good day, so months of fair weather would be required to get all of them off. Not too likely.

Anticipating that likelihood, Svitzer's salvors have readied two hundred transponders, and attached them to containers most likely to become flotsam.

A more substantial crane-equipped vessel, the Smit Borneo, is on its way from Singapore and should arrive in a week or two. The Smit Borneo is a heavy-lifter, usually employed for pipelaying in the offshore oil patch. Here's an issue of a Smit publication, The Tug, that mentions the Borneo at work on a sunken drill rig. Here's the vessel, from
A look at the Rena makes the challenge clear. Containers were stacked seven high aft of the deckhouse, and up to six high elsewhere. There are hundreds more containers secured in steel racks called "cell guides," under the decks.

For container geeks, here's a handbook for vessel masters about how containers are stowed on different types of ships, above and below decks. Here's a risk-advisory paper from marine insurers on the problems of container stowage above decks. (Item for future blog: marine insurers are concerned about a rising trend of containers lost from containerships while in transit; there are a variety of reasons for this; one is a scary phenomenon called parametric rolling.)

First, a brief summary about how generic containerships like the Rena stow their cargo. At port, crews begin by lowering and stowing containers in the holds (the cavernous areas below decks). When each hold is full, cranes lift heavily reinforced covers to seal the hatches. These hatch covers are the foundation for hundreds more containers on deck, usually six high. 

Containers in the holds: Each vertical column of containers is called a “cell.” As lowered by a crane, a container slides down a “cell guide" (a strong steel framework with vertical tracks) until it comes to rest either on the base of the cell guide, or another container. 

Containers are highly standardized, which allows the dimensions of the cell guides to be very precise. Precision is normally a good thing, because if there's slack between the cell guides and the containers, movement of the containers at sea will damage the cell guides.

Above decks, the first two or three tiers of containers are held down by steel rods called lashings. These are diagonal tension rods, securing corners of the containers to fittings on the ship structure. These attachments are quite strong ... assuming the containers and fittings are in good shape. If you look at the Rena photo above you can see some of the diagonal lashings -- they look like X's across the ends of the containers.

But containers in tiers rising higher than the lashed ones are more at risk. These upper containers attach to each other at the corners, not directly to the ship structure. The higher and heavier the stack, the more leverage to crush the containers below, or to snap their attachments. Crushed containers are visible at the bottom of the stacks on the stern.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chasing Contrails at Flight Level 360

Disaster-wise, I'm tracking several developments (evidence of spontaneous fission at Fukushima-Daichi; what went wrong with Fobos-Grunt after successful injection to low-Earth orbit; and the daring plan to pluck shipping containers from the leaning Rena with the Smit-Borneo crane barge) but for now, a word about my sponsor, clouds! This following two trips to California in the last two weeks.

One trip was for an Inviting Disaster safety talk at a NASA facility and the other was to finish location shooting for a History Channel special to be broadcast in April 2012, produced by Lone Wolf Documentary Group. Links to come.

Both flights offered fine weather, which for a cloud-watcher, means heaps of clouds below and a clear sky above. 

One neat back-lighting effect that appeared west of Salt Lake City was produced as sunlight reflected off the snow cover, sending sunlight up through a heavy cloud cover:
And contrails clamored for attention, like these two eye-level streaks at 36,000 feet:
Here's a sunrise-contrail, appearing when I was on the way back:
Here's a contrail as seen from above, also in early morning.
Over eastern Utah our flight paralleled another plane, which happened to be making a whopper of a contrail. The sky was hazy enough, and the contrail big enough, that it actually threw a shadow across the sky:
Here's the dark streak that the contrail laid across a low cloud deck and a range of mountains:
That's a big one. More typically, contrail-shadows are faint and not visible at long distances, like these:
Winding up, now back at ground level, here's a summertime time-lapse video of cirrus on a northwesterly wind, followed by a handful of contrails.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lotsa flotsam: Crane vessel joins the Rena scene

Quick DW sitrep: The Rena will never float again, or not in one piece, but at least it's holding together at its location on Astrolabe Reef, so far. There's some progress in pumping the heavy fuel oil and diesel out of the tanks: 256 metric tons so far. That's out of the port-side tanks, which are a lot easier to reach than those on starboard side.

The work on the inside is truly miserable: a sickening smell of rotting food and oil; very slippery ladders and stairways tilting beyond 20 degrees; the danger of getting flattened by something breaking loose.

And then there's the noise. If the salvors have a spare moment to make an audio recording and send it to someone like me, it would do justice to a techno-haunted house. As each wave hits, those on the inside say it raises an unearthly chorus of shrieks, groans, and grinding noises. "Cacophony" is the word that comes to mind, but it's not strong enough. This description from Svitzer spokesman Matt Watson:
"When you are up close to it, it sounds like Jurassic Park - you hear this groan, and then a crack, and then a roar like she's kind of writhing in the water.… It runs from one end to the other and then it just seems to ricochet back. It's a very interesting sound, to say the least."
As to the crane-vessel question that I raised in this post, now we know the name of the ship hired by marine salvor Svitzer to round up containers from the Rena: the Pancaldo. Here's a picture from MarineTraffic:
According to RadioNZ, the Pancaldo will start by hoisting stray containers aboard (that's flotsam, meaning debris floating in the water). Here are containers setting out on their voyage, which could reach South America if not picked up first:
Whenever Pancaldo pulls a sunken container off the seafloor, it's got a grip on lagan. Lagan includes containers that its cranes pluck from the tilting deck of the wreck.

But it won't be bringing back jetsam: that's because admiralty courts say jetsam is only that that stuff that a crew physically heaved overboard to lessen the draft. Months from now, when you're trying to keep all these straight, think of jetsam as something that is jettisoned.

These kind of details may seem like nit-picking to the rest of us, but in legal history it's meant a good deal in fights involving claimants who came across extremely valuable cargo: was it free for the taking, or did it belong to the salvor, the insurers, or the vessel owner?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Rena carried two grades of fuel oil

The Containership Vessel Rena hasn't broken in half yet, but the hull is seriously fractured, given the flexing of the ship. Here's a diagram from Maritime NZ showing how the ship sits half-on, and half-off, Astrolabe Reef. The bow is on the right:
Each technological disaster and close call offers a window into how systems work, and how they fail. The grounding of the Rena is an opportunity to learn about the modern combination of fuel and machinery that makes big ships get up and go.

By the early 1900s, the most common approach to powering a steamship was coal-> steam-> reciprocating engine. Ships carried thousands of tons of coal in storage compartments called bunkers, and men called coal trimmers shoveled it within reach of firemen, who heaved it into fireboxes, which heated a bank of boilers to raise steam. Later, shipbuilders turned from reciprocating engines to the more compact and powerful steam turbines. 

Loading and handling coal on board ship was a nuisance, dirty, and labor-intensive. Coal for bunkering ships began a long decline following the amazing discovery of Spindletop Field near Beaumont, Texas, in 1901. Ships began experimenting with crude oil, but the quantities required were large and oil had better uses. Steamship engineers turned to steam-generating systems that burned the cheapest grade of petroleum-derived fuel, a tarry residue from refining called Bunker C

Some power plants use similar stuff today; it's called No. 6 Fuel Oil, or a blend of No. 6 and No. 2.

Number 6 and Bunker C must be heated before pumps can force the stuff from storage tanks, through pipes, and into burner heads mounted under the boilers. Normally this is not a problem, since ships have a surplus of waste heat and use it to keep the tanks hot.

Later, shipbuilders began moving away from steam plants to marine diesels, but those gulped expensive diesel fuel. Filling an ocean-going tugboat with a load of diesel can cost upward of $30,000.

What to do? Big ships with diesel engines, and now some big tugboats, turned to a heavy fuel oil (called HFO) similar to Bunker C, heating it and injecting it at high pressure into the cylinders of a diesel engine. 

In a busy containership or tanker harbor, a crowd of heavy-fuel-oil-burning ships would contribute much to local haze. Many ports, such as Long Beach, California, prohibit ships from burning it in their waters. One legal solution is for a ship to carry a smaller quantity of gasoil or diesel fuel for harbor use, because these burn (relatively) more cleanly in marine diesel engines. (The biggest of shipboard diesel engines are very big, weighing 2,300 tons.)

Here's what a smoke plume from untreated heavy fuel oil looks like, when burned in an urban setting (photo from the Environmental Defense Fund):

So that's why the Rena approached Astrolabe Reef on October 5 with two kinds of fuel in its bunkers: 1,400 tons of cheap heavy fuel oil, and 300 tons of diesel to use where HFO is banned, like harbors and Antarctic waters.

Once the ship lost power, the heavy fuel oil started cooling and congealing. Here's what HFO looks like when washed up on a New Zealand beach:
There's about a thousand tons of such goo still on Rena, so we can only hope the salvors can get their augers and steam-generators working and force it from the tanks before the ship breaks in two.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Containership emergency off NZ: Rena on the rocks

Those who follow maritime news might have heard about a dramatic scenario unfolding around the containership MV Rena, which on October 5 struck a submerged stretch of rock about 15 miles from Tauranga, a port on New Zealand's North Island.

The reasons haven't been given but faulty navigation is probably on investigators' short list, given that the ship was making its full speed of 17 knots when it struck a reef that's well-known to mariners. Ironically if so: the obstruction is called Astrolabe Reef, after the early navigation instrument. 

NZ authorities say a high-speed freighter grounding in the open sea is so rare there are no standard operating procedures written up to guide the emergency response effort and salvage work. Meanwhile, the captain has been arrested.

The Rena is a Greek-owned, Liberian-flagged containership. The crew numbered 17. Containers are stacked up to seven high. Here's an overflight video 

Here's how it looked before the weather went bad:
The situation has deteriorated quite a bit given high seas, with 70 containers having tumbled off and more to follow:
Waves up to 13 feet high worsened the ship's lean, which at last report was 19 degrees off vertical. Here's a magnification of the previous photo, with yellow-highlighted boxes near the bow that are about to break loose. Note that there are gaps showing, an indication that the lashings are in the process of failing. Another cause for containers breaking loose is when a box collapses under the compressive loads.
Meanwhile the ship is taking on water and grinding down high points on the reef. Blobs of fuel oil from a two-thousand-ton supply in the ship's bunkers are washing onto beaches in the Bay of Plenty. Residents at a meeting in Tauranga were upset that off-loading of fuel oil hadn't been started and finished during four initial days of good weather. They also were concerned about the proposed use of Corexit 9500 dispersant instead of deploying floating booms. 
Given the equipment, decent weather, and a barge or tanker to put the stuff in, it's not hard to pump hundreds of tons of fuel oil out of a ship. This particular job was hampered by the collision of the receiving tanker with the Rena, and then the evacuation of shipboard personnel due to heavy weather and a dangerous lean. 

As containerships go, the 21-year-old Rena is on the smallish side, at 47,230 deadweight tons. Before the drama began, it was carrying 1,351 containers. The biggest of the new breed of post-Panamax containerships -- meaning, ones too wide to fit through the Panama Canal -- will be hauling six times that many trailer equivalent units, called TEUs in the trade. (A TEU is a 20-foot-long, sturdy metal shipping container. The common 40-foot-long box like you see on the highway or in a train is two TEUs). 

A floating crane is en route from Singapore with the stated plan of plucking containers from the stack, to lighten the ship and make refloating possible. I don't know which one, but here's a link to the QP 2000, a big derrick barge that sometimes operates out of Singapore. 
The Rena's owners contracted with Svitzer Salvage BV to head the work. They were signed under the famous Lloyd's Open Form, or LOF.

Who says contracts have to be dense beyond human understanding? Here's the simple but meaningful header for the 2000 version of the LOF:
Under the LOF, if a salvor doesn't save what he's agreed to save, it doesn't matter how much he's spent battling the elements. Cash payments are a percentage of the value of whatever equipment or cargo he saves. In general, successful salvors receive 15-20% of the value under an LOF agreement. 

Since the containers are lashed to deck fittings with steel rods that need manual labor to release, and given that the Rena is leaning dramatically, and given that the waves are driving it higher onto the rocks, this salvage job is shaping up as a world-class challenge. As Radio New Zealand put it, taking a load off the Rena will be a job "difficult at best." 

Here's an account from the ILWU, the longshoreman's union, about the dangers faced when their members got the job of pulling containers off the storm-ravaged APL China ... and that was after the ship was safely tied up in Seattle harbor. Some containers came to pieces when lifted, spilling cargo. Here's a photo of the China in port, from CargoLaw:
Does anyone know if a containership has been offloaded under conditions like those of the Rena? I haven't heard of one. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Another lesson from WW2: Facts should lead action

In the struggle to achieve titanic production under conditions of extreme urgency, nothing good happened in the war effort without an expert, unbiased look at the facts first. 

Among the leaders of the industrial miracle that was America's home front during World War II was speculator and industrialist Bernard Baruch, who made his millions in sugar futures before World War I, but then retired and devoted the rest of his career to industrial preparedness in case of war. Here he is:
Officers at the Industrial War College in the 1930s (including Dwight Eisenhower) called Baruch “Dr. Facts” because of his ruthlessness in digging into details about how civilian factories could retool to meet wartime demands. Baruch once said this to justify his take-no-prisoners pursuit of production facts and figures: "If you get all the facts, your judgment can be right; if you don't get all the facts, it can't be right." 

Baruch and other industrial experts decided that the three most urgent production needs in early 1941 were ammunition, cargo ships, and synthetic rubber

Rubber was critical to defense equipment and transport, but Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies had cut off 95 percent of our supplies. How to fill a quarter-million-ton shortfall set off a very public battle about which production process (and therefore which feedstock) to use.

Should the new factories use ethanol from American corn farmers, or oil from American oil producers? This had to be settled before factories could go up. Competing interests fought hard because a lot of money was at stake; by the end of the war the US would spend as much on synthetic rubber as it did on the Manhattan Project's A-bomb. In the end, oil won the argument.

Here's a slab of the new stuff.
Sometimes it got ugly: the ethanol vs. oil dispute once triggered a fistfight between the nation's rubber administrator and a newspaper publisher, in a swank Washington club. But the job of making millions of artificial tires, tubes, membranes, and gaskets got done in time ... because facts led the way. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Mayor of Fudai: A man, a plan, and a wave

Following up with a few images and maps behind a news story published in May on the story of a mayor's determination to safeguard the 3,000 residents in Fudai, a seaside town about 320 miles northeast of Tokyo. Here's a map, from the Fudai Wiki page
That man was Kotoku Wamura, mayor of Fudai from 1947 to 1987. For those familiar with Japanese or at least Google Translate, the good mayor's Wiki page is here. His photograph:
It's from Culture Smash, which also corrects English-language news accounts' spelling of the mayor's first name.

Beginning in 1972, and against much opposition over the $30 million cost and land forfeitures, Wamura pushed through a twelve-year project to build a 51-foot-high set of floodgates spanning two mountainsides. He wanted to protect the town from the kind of devastation he saw in 1933, after the wave generated by the Sanriku Earthquake drowned or buried 439 people in Fudai. That wave topped out at 94 feet at Tarō

Of all the Japanese towns and cities that erected some kind of wave barrier, Fudai's was the tallest. 

Here's an oblique view of Fudai's setting, from LongNow:
A Google Map overhead view of the town:
And the structure itself. The movable floodgates are necessary to let the river flow through in normal times.
And a view from the seaside.
The tsunami on March 11 actually overtopped the giant gates by 15 feet, but the main force of the wave was broken. Damage to the town on the protected side was inconsequential. 

Wamura died in 1997, but the people of Fudai have been visiting his grave to pay respects. His theory became their reality. 

So when you face opposition and wonder whether one person can ever make a difference, recall Fudai, town by the sea ... a town that's still standing.

Friday, September 23, 2011

UARS, Terror Out of Space

There's a remarkable amount of worldwide interest in the uncontrolled re-entry of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, given the infinitesimally small risk. Here's the awkward beast:
For near-Earth-orbit fans, here's a link to my 1999 article for Smithsonian on space debris. It was a fun article to research, and it got me into the NORAD command center in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, among many other unique spots. (Sorry, public tours into the mountain are yet another casualty of 9/11.)

According to this AP article, NASA owns every bolt, nut and shred of UARS, so don't think about putting the tank or thrust chamber you find on eBay. (As you can see from the photos on this site, tanks, particularly titanium-walled pressure tanks, have a pretty good chance of surviving the heat of re-entry.) Here's one:
The most famous pieces of American space wreckage derive from the loss of the orbiters Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003).

Less than a year after the disaster, NASA sealed all pieces of Challenger into two decommissioned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 31. Here's a NASA photo of Challenger wreckage being put away:

But not all of Challenger went in there, because not all of it was found. A critical piece of the shuttle's right-hand booster was never located, and almost eleven years later three pieces of Challenger washed up on a beach in close proximity, one nearly 13 feet long. 
NASA collected and siloed them as well:
This website at hosted a discussion in 2007 about what NASA should do with such historic pieces. 

What about remnants from the first American spacecraft disaster, the oxygen fire in the Apollo 204 command module that killed three astronauts in 1967? At last report, the singed capsule is in storage at Langley Research Center. While the item has never been displayed in a museum, it is more accessible than are the remnants of Challenger

Saturday, September 10, 2011

World Trade Center: Three visits

I'm sure people have heard and seen plenty about the tenth anniversary of 9/11 by now, but here goes. 

I was in the World Trade Center three times. The first was as a tourist, visiting the observation platform atop the South Tower. 

The second time was in 1983, as a feature writer. I was touring the structure to research a Smithsonian article on how three modern structures would age if abandoned by civilization, like the seven wonders of the ancient world

The three modern wonders I profiled were the WTC towers, the Grand Coulee Dam, and the St. Louis Gateway Arch. My March 1984 article is reprinted here

For my WTC work, a Port Authority staffer let me onto the roof of the North Tower, the one studded with antennas. Based on a lengthy interview with WTC chief structural engineer Leslie Robertson, my article predicted the abandoned, wind-swept Twin Towers tumbling into the Hudson within a thousand years, give or take. Here's an illustration from the "Engineers vs. the Eons" article:
During the interview I asked Les Robertson if he thought the buildings might fall into each other in domino fashion, and he was quite firm that they would never do so. 

The third visit was to research an added chapter to Inviting Disaster about engineering and evacuation aspects of the WTC collapse. In that chapter I explained why the towers didn't fall into each other despite the airliners' trajectories, and why the collapse of the South Tower didn't trigger the immediate collapse of the North Tower.

After some months of deliberation, the Port Authority allowed me to spend a day at Ground Zero, shadowing engineer Pablo Lopez on an inspection visit for his employer, Mueser Rutledge. That was in March 2002. I had less than a day's notice to get to New York; I checked into my hotel at 2:30 a.m. and met Pablo first thing that morning.

Pablo's job was to make the rounds of Ground Zero and ensure that excavation of the rubble didn't jeopardize the concrete slurry walls that make up the perimeter of the big basement. He worked out of an engineers' field office set up in kindergarten classrooms on the second floor of nearby Public School 89. 

Here's an excellent paper by George Tamaro on the slurry walls' construction and how they held up during the collapse and recovery. We spent most of the time on the northern side of the site, in the wreckage of WTC 6, also known as the Customs House. 

The events of 9/11 didn't obliterate the Customs House like the Twin Towers, but did punch a mighty hole all the way through to the basement:
The waffle-like objects are wall panels from the North Tower, a combination of steel columns and spandrel beams that gave the building its extraordinary ability to resist a direct impact from a jetliner at top speed.

As we walked each accessible floor, Pablo showed me cars in the parking garage that had been sheared in half by structural steel falling from the upper floors of the North Tower. Some of that was tightly jammed into the bottom of the big hole; I was reminded of the wreckage that results when two freight trains collide inside a tunnel: twisted and very dense.

The exterior walls on the south were gone so we could see firefighters outside, rooting through rubble with garden rakes. The rubble was a dull-gray mix of metal, fragmented concrete, scraps of textile, dirt, and a great deal of paper that months of weather had aged to parchment. I saw some correspondence from the Green Coffee Association.

One image that sticks with me was the view into an underground coffee shop at the commuter station where the PATH tubes entered the Trade Center. Pablo wanted to check on the tunnels under the Hudson, and we looked into the shop while walking down the track. The snack bar was dusty but mostly intact. There were plates, cups, and newspapers abandoned on the tables. 

I never felt that we were in any danger, but it was sobering to read later that one of the WTC 6 floors we were on had collapsed the next day.

That reminds me of a few unwritten rules when shadowing an expert into uncontrolled areas: stick close; wear the protective gear; help serve as a second pair of eyes to look for hazards; and if he or she says it's time to back up and take another route, don't argue!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

San Bruno Pipeline Blast: NTSB lays out another system failure

The National Transportation Safety Board met on August 30 to discuss findings from its exhaustive investigation into the September 9, 2010 PG&E pipeline blast at San Bruno, CA. For those who want to check out the many documents on file, see the NTSB docket page.

Here's a summary of facts and technical findings presented on Tuesday by Ravi Chattre, NTSB engineer and chief investigator.

To summarize Chattre's message, this was an organizational accident, a failure across the system including state and federal regulatory oversight. Here's how Chattre explains that term:

"Organizational accidents typically have multiple contributing causes, involve people at numerous levels within the organization, and are characterized by a pervasive lack of proactive measures to ensure adoption and compliance with a safety culture. They are generally catastrophic in nature and require complex organizational changes. All these aspects are present in this accident."

At the core were persistent failures by PG&E to chase down and fix pipeline-safety hazards. In the case of the failure of Line 132, those problems date back to construction in 1956. The fabricated section of pups saw some remarkably poor welding (particularly in longitudinal seams) and a simultaneous breakdown of inspection and documentation. Here's my January blog post summarizing the welding errors and omissions. The flaws included a hunk of welding rod left in a bead. 

Despite having experienced two similar accidents before, PG&E did not acknowledge that a much more aggressive approach to old-pipeline safety was needed. This would have been expensive; it would have meant digging up and cutting out unpiggable sections (like the pups at the explosion site) and pressure-testing lines with water. These would have turned up the bad section ("woefully inadequate" according to NTSB chair Deborah Hersman) and prevented the blast. Instead, long stretches of grandfathered pipe received no such attention because state and federal regulators expected, or hoped, that industry would do the right thing under a performance-based approach. (In a performance-based approach, a regulated party is supposed to find its own path to an acceptable outcome.)

In this case, the outcome was that a pressure pulse on Sept. 9 originating at the Milpitas control center opened up a string of half-welded seams. It's amazing the cruddy welds lasted that long.

From Chattre's paper:

"During the course of the investigation, staff discovered systemic deficiencies within PG&E as an organization. ... Many of these same deficiencies were identified in the NTSB’s investigations of PG&E accidents that occurred in 2008 in Rancho Cordova and in 1981 in San Francisco. Consequently, PG&E missed earlier opportunities to make corrections that could have prevented the,San Bruno tragedy."

Early news reports and blog posts (including this one of mine) discussed a wide range of suspected factors, but NTSB reports that the following suspects played no role at the Line 132 blast: corrosion of the steel; damage from the "pipe-bursting" sewer construction work nearby; or seismic activity.

One of the things that most disturbed investigators was the long delay before PG&E shut down the high-pressure gas feeding this ferocious blaze: 95 minutes. During this period the pipe belched as much fuel gas as the entire city of San Bruno burns in a month. Eight people died.

See my recent post about how important it is that dangerous activities (including structures subject to storm collapse, like temporary state-fair stages) have robust and well-tested plans that can shut down energy supplies promptly in the event of catastrophe. 

Many older wooden dwellings in the LA Basin have no seismic gas shutoff valves (SGSVs) that shut down gas feed into the building in the event of a major quake, because local laws do not commonly require them except in new and remodeled structures. Here's an interesting lessons-learned paper about how SGSVs performed in the 1994 Northridge quake.

To their credit, Japanese authorities ordered building and homeowners to install SGSVs after the Kobe Earthquake of 1995.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Thousand-Year Lease

Look at the Chrysler Building in NYC, and what do you see?
The Abu Dhabi Investment Council sees a crown jewel among its many holdings - it put together a 90% ownership stake in the iconic building three years ago.

But if you're The Cooper Union, you see the land underneath, which you're renting to someone else. Cooper updated its lease in 1998, and the current sheepskin runs through 2147. That's the time-tested policy of other longstanding groups like the Dutch Reformed Church in Harlem: lease your Manhattan land (lawyers call it collecting ground rent) but never, ever sell it. 

As readers know, I like to contemplate long spans of timeThere are many parcels on Manhattan Island with leases running to 2050 and well beyond: the St. Regis Hotel, the Empire State Building; and the 27 houses of Pomander Walk, a row of Tudors between 94th and 95th Streets, which are under leases expiring after 2100. 

While some long leases have only perfunctory annual payments and are really title transfers in disguise, there are many cases in which the agreement truly acts like a lease even across very long spans. One 200-year commercial lease in New York has a payment term adjusted every two decades, based on a renewed appraisal. Until the Depression, some leases required payment in gold bullion or at least gold certificates.

Lease terms of 200 years are only the short end of the subject. The IRT's 999-year obligations as lessee for its old elevated railway triggered a 30-year court fight, ended only by bankruptcy. The peculiarity known as the ultra-long lease appears in every country that operated under the feudal real estate system of England. That includes Hong Kong, Singapore, India, and Kenya. There are thousands of leases with terms over 700 years. Harvard has one of those, for the Arnold Arboretum, at a dollar a year. It's obligated to make the land available to any resident from dawn to dusk each day of the year for another 800-odd years or so. 

Some medieval leases run 5,000 to 20,000 years, making them members of the “ultra-long lease” group. The longest property leases (one million years) have turned up in Paisley, Scotland.

By law the UK now bans newly-drafted leases from running more than 199 years, though ultra-long leases, if signed before 2001, are still fully enforceable as long as the terms can be calculated objectively.

The reason for the ban on adding to the population of ultra-long-leases is that the reversionary clause in an ultra-long lease (meaning, restrictions that allow the freeholder to terminate the lease and reclaim the land if violated) get harder to interpret as the decades and then centuries roll by. 

One example is a 1929 lease term that required prime London land to be held for the benefit of the “working classes." Decades later, developers who wanted to tear down the subsidized housing on the land and erect houses for the rich sought to overthrow this term as irrelevant to the economy of 2002.

Here's a question for the Crown Estate and the comparatively few fortunate foundations and families that own immensely valuable commercial property in the lower reaches of New York and London: if sea levels rise through 2100, and all the evidence points that way, are the leases enforceable? If mega-engineering a la Venice is held up as the solution, how many people outside of the affected area will be willing and able to pay for it?

It's not academic for lower Manhattan, because the fringes are low-lying landfill that top out a few feet above sea level. Climate Central published this map of New York last week, showing zones that will flood during a storm surge bringing water five feet above high tide:
More to come about what lawyers are saying these days about the Act of God defense to contract enforcement.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stage Collapse and the Emergency Shutoff: Remember the Liberté

Even before forensic engineers report back (Thornton Tomasetti of NYC is one) on the Indiana State Fair stage collapse, are there any lessons?

One item that caught my attention was on the TheatreSafety blog.
TheatreSafety points out that according to this chronology of events, 22 minutes passed between the collapse and when somebody shut off the electrical feed to the wreckage.
That time delay posed a substantial risk to the rescue that got underway immediately. Much of the collapsed structure was of conductive metal, intertwined with power cables, electrical hoists, spotlights, and video equipment that had been suspended from the fly system.

From Vincent Dunn's website on fireground safety, here's an expert view about why quick access to utility shutoffs is so important at emergency scenes:
“Explosions and structural collapse rip open walls, ceilings and floors of a structure. Live electric wires are threaded throughout the rubble, hanging dangerously in midair and laying around the ground. A collapse search and rescue plan must be put into action. This plan must include: safety survey and reconnaissance, surface search and rescue, void search, selected debris removal and general rubble removal. One of the most important parts of the first step of the collapse rescue plan is to shut off all the utilities such as water and electricity. Shutting off electric power can save the lives of searching firefighters and trapped victims in the collapse rubble."
Since some jurisdictions allow temporary outdoor stages to operate in a complete regulatory vacuum, it's likely there will be more collapses that trap entertainers, workers, and members of the audience. So somebody has to plan ahead on turning the power off.

The location of the circuit breaker must be well-marked and outside of the probable collapse radius. It's no help if the breaker panel is at the base of the debris field and can't be reached without someone being electrocuted on the way in.

How to pass along the information about the breaker panel? Signage is one way, but signs can be overlooked in the confusion of a disaster. Officials at some public buildings have combined a vital set of items in a single container at each site called the Crisis Response Box. The CRB is a set of building plans, keys, phone numbers, and other time-critical information assembled ahead of time that can save lives in an emergency. This CRB guidebook from California offers a relevant lessons-learned item from the 1999 attack at Columbine High School:
"During the incident at Columbine, no one was readily available who knew how to immediately turn off the sprinkler system. As a result, hallways quickly filled with water, making it difficult to escape.  In some places, the water reached dangerous levels in proximity to the electrical outlets – water reaching such outlets could have caused many more injuries and possibly additional deaths."
For an historical example of why emergency shutoffs have to be thoughtfully located, see this account in Inviting Disaster of an ammunition fire aboard the battleship Liberté in Toulon Harbor.

In that 1911 crisis, a forward magazine of ammunition loaded with the volatile Poudre B composition caught fire spontaneously. A two-man crew had scant minutes to get to the bow and open seawater valves that would flood the magazine before the magazine would explode, but they found it impossible to reach the valves because some thoughtless person had located the flooding controls directly above the powder magazines. During the crew's third frantic try to breach the smoke and flames and reach the valves, the ship blew up. 

Moral: as humans we're supposed to have the unique ability of anticipating the future and weighing actions we haven't taken yet. So apply that forebrain! 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sunsets and Anti-Sunsets

When stopping to photograph a spectacular sunset or sunrise, look in the opposite direction too, at what might be thought of as the antipodal clouds. 

Antipodes are two spots on the Earth's surface that lie directly opposite; if one hammered a rod straight through the planet, it would hit both spots. For those who want to check out their own antipodal point, try out this nifty interactive map. (Using the hand cursor to slide the image, center the top map on your location. The lower map will show the antipodal point.)

The antipodal point of my neighborhood is a trackless patch of the Indian Ocean, midway between Australia and India but more southerly. Well, not quite trackless. I was surprised to see a big island that I've never heard of, a territory of France called Kerguelen. It's one of the French Southern Lands. The antipodal point of Kerguelen is south of Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. Here's a picture of Kerguelen's rock-ribbed headlands, what to me was terra incognita until just now:
Back to cloud-hunting. I concede that using the word "antipodes" is a stretch when it comes to cloud photography .... How about "anti-sunset"?

An anti-sunset photo would be one taken 180 degrees opposite of the sun's location on the compass: if the sun is hitting the horizon at 285 degrees on the compass, the anti-sunset happens at 105 degrees. Sometimes the anti-sunset is nothing special -- there are no clouds, or they lack features to catch the light -- but sometimes the anti-sunset outclasses the showier sunset. 

Here's an example of a recent, decent sunset in my area. Nothing outstanding, but I liked the warm, warbly texture.
Next, here's an anti-sunset photo the same evening.
Because the background sky of an anti-sunset is dark, sunlit clouds have a way of standing out. Here's a painting-like view of clouds off to the side:

A second photo halfway between sunset and anti-sunset. Notice how it has more depth than the showy sunset?
So, winding up: sunsets are fine and I love to watch them as much as anyone, but they tend to be short on subtlety and depth. So don't forget to take a spin and look at the whole sky!