It’s going to fall

Architects always squirm a bit when we hear about a building collapse, especially when people are injured or killed. The 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse, in Kansas City, was a big deal because all the professionals involved probably thought they had exercised due diligence – but changes that subtly weakened the structure had slipped by during construction.

In Philadelphia a building under demolition collapsed onto a neighboring thrift store that was still occupied. Talking Points Memo reports that several workers nearby were worried by what they saw:

For weeks, people working nearby had watched with growing concern as a demolition crew took down a vacant four-story building next to a thrift store at the edge of downtown Philadelphia.

A roofer atop another building didn’t think the operation looked safe. A pair of window washers across the street spotted an unbraced, 30-foot section of wall and predicted among themselves the whole building would simply fall down.

On Wednesday, that’s what happened. The unstable shell of a building collapsed into a massive heap of bricks and splintered wood, taking part of the Salvation Army thrift store with it and killing six people. Fourteen others were injured.

But no one reported their fears. Every morning on the light rail I hear, “If you see something, say something,” meaning suspicious-looking people or packages. I wonder what would have happened if one of those workers, or a passing engineer, had called the authorities to express their concerns. Would they have been ignored, as were the engineers at Dhaka, or would they have been thanked for their vigilance? Or would they have been told to mind their own business?

In light of the Ag-Gag bills, do we now have to stop and wonder who we might be reporting to the authorities, lest we be charged as a whistleblower? With revelations about wiretapping of journalists, monitoring of phone records and increasingly pervasive video surveillance, can we afford to even voice our fears to each other?

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