A recent story in The New York Times alerted me again to the problems we engineers face when called upon to inspect and be responsible for all the possible safety ramifications of our work. This headline caught my eye: "Engineer faces perjury charge after fatal Bronx fire."
The possible charges are the result of an engineer’s (alleged) failure to fully (the key word) inspect a construction site, which might have caused the death of two firefighters. They were fighting a fire at a discount store when rotting support columns gave way under them, the floor collapsed, and the two men were subsequently trapped and perished. Others were also injured.
According to the Times, "The charges represent the most significant law enforcement action taken against a professional involved in a program that gives engineers and architects the authority to approve construction projects, without city oversight" (emphasis added).
In New York City, the program is basically an honor system that gives technical professionals the right to sign off on certain projects, but it is alleged that there have been widespread abuses recently. City lawyers are developing procedures that will improve oversight standards. Also, and most importantly, the penalties for omissions by professionals will be increased.
The perjury charges are the most serious—and the most interesting—aspects of the case. It has been alleged that the engineer lied to investigators who were appraising the reasons for the fatalities that occurred as a direct result of the fire.
According to investigative reports, the engineer "had approved plans to renovate the building without conducting a final inspection of the work, as required." This approval was allegedly done in spite of the fact that the structure had "rotten support columns, shoddy repair work, and alterations far more extensive than listed in the plans."
City officials also criticized the engineer for failure to inspect the building carefully. It is also alleged that the professional engineer showed a lack of due diligence in his inspection procedures. In effect, the charge against the engineer is that he allowed the structural deficiencies of the decayed columns to exist.
However, the engineer’s lawyer stated that the fire department’s position in the matter was wrong and that the engineer (his client) "approved plans [only] for replacing the building’s roof and would never have any reason to inspect the basement or the columns supporting the floor." He also said that the engineer "had no way to know that any alterations in the basement or the building’s floor [were needed]." He added that the engineer has not been formally accused of violating professional standards and that the fire department is "trying to imply a moral obligation."
The lawyer also said something that an unbiased person might disagree with: "There is no connection structurally … between the roof and the floor failing. … The engineer had a limited role, which was to install the roof."
But it appears that criminal issues are focused on the engineer’s later statements to law enforcement officials. The Bronx District Attorney’s perjury charges against the engineer apparently stem from these statements.
The engineer’s lawyer claims that the engineer was being made a scapegoat, even though he has an unblemished professional record. "The engineer does these plans, then four or five years later there is a fire and he is being questioned," the attorney said. But apparently, his answers to the questions—not his design work on the roof—led to the criminal investigation.
Another lawyer for one of the building’s owners said that they relied on construction professionalism and did not agree with the city’s finding that rotten columns led to the collapse.
The parents of one of the firefighters said that they did not support the system that allowed professionals to certify their own projects and believed that the city should go back to using its own inspectors.
There is another aspect to the story. The city’s Buildings Commissioner said that the agency "has added inspectors but that it would not be feasible to eliminate the self-certification program. … Eliminating professional certification would contribute to the rising costs of construction in New York City. … The city began to allow professionals to certify construction projects in 1995. Since then, professionals hired by the builders (instead of city inspectors) have scrutinized an increasing number of building projects. … About half of the 6,000 or so jobs in 2008, for example, were ’self certified.’ The crux of the problem is that this program is founded on the theory that professionals would be reluctant to cheat because falsely certifying a plan could mean the loss of a license or a multi-year suspension of filing privileges."
During a recent, five-year period, more than 20 engineers were disciplined for improper filing of certifications. Most received fines, but four had their licenses either suspended or revoked.
The story of this tragedy is ongoing. A subsequent story in the Times stated that the engineer has pleaded not guilty to perjury charges.
My purpose in writing about this subject is to alert engineers to something most of us already know. Always be truthful about thoughts and actions. I have no way of knowing whether the engineering aspects of the case would have been detrimental to the engineer’s reputation, but we all know that to lie under oath can lead to more serious charges than whatever it is we might be lying about.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 201-441-9719; or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.