Rescue workers had barely finished the grim search for bodies in the debris of Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency Hotel last month when mechanical engineer Roger McCarthy, 32, arrived at the scene with a team of experts in metallurgy, architecture and structural engineering. His firm, Failure Analysis Associates of Palo Alto, Calif., has spent 14 years investigating plane crashes, train accidents, building collapses and other failures of men and machines. But even his past experience didn’t prepare McCarthy for what he saw in Kansas City. “I ran a gamut of emotions that day,” he says. “Sadness doesn’t begin to cover it.”
McCarthy and his colleagues at Failure Analysis were retained by lawyers for the hotel’s architects to find the cause for the skywalk collapse that left 111 people dead at an afternoon tea dance, and they sifted through wreckage for four days. “We inspected evidence, took lots of pictures, noted the physical clues and took measurements,” McCarthy reports. “It is not enough for us to speculate about what caused the accident. We have to make sure we’re right.”
Their success in other cases has made the firm one of the world’s most respected disaster detective agencies. Launched with $500 in capital by engineer Bernard Ross and four fellow scientists, the company gained national recognition with its investigation of the 1968 crash in Dawson, Texas of a Lockheed Electra that killed 85 people. Since then Failure Analysis has become a $7.3 million-a-year business with 85 employees and branch offices in Houston, Los Angeles and Phoenix. Hired by insurance companies, suit-wary corporations and even consumer groups, the firm has tested everything from baseball pitching machines (“They were really clobbering kids,” says Ross) to heat-resistant tiles on the space shuttle. They worked on the 1974 crash of a Turkish Airlines DC-10 that killed 346 people, and are still probing the collapse in 1979 of the roof of Kansas City’s Kemper Arena. Their work is often ingenious; to find the cause of the Hyatt collapse, for instance, they made plastic casts of the fractured ends of support beams, which they are now analyzing with the aid of sophisticated electronic microscopes and chemical tests. Says Ross: “It’s detective work, engineering pathology—like doing a jigsaw puzzle.”
Ross assumed the presidency of Failure Analysis Associates in 1978 under tragically ironic circumstances: Alan Tetelman, one of the firm’s founders, was killed in a midair collision over San Diego while en route to the site of a Navy jet crash.
Born in Montreal and schooled in engineering at Cornell and Stanford, Ross, now 46, spends half his time on the road each year. (Off duty he drives one of the much-maligned Chevy Corvairs—”one of the greatest cars of all times.”) Roger McCarthy, the company’s VP and principal design engineer, spends even less time at home in Belmont, Calif, with his wife, Gail, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He has no regrets. “This work is what I was destined to do,” says McCarthy. He holds three graduate degrees in engineering from MIT, but credits his University of Michigan B.A. in philosophy for “allowing me to think conceptually and quickly.”
By last week the Hyatt investigation had shifted to the Failure Analysis labs in Palo Alto and L.A., where scientists began poring over data and preparing the way for a computer evaluation of the accident. While some critics were quick to blame the catastrophe on design flaws or “harmonic vibrations” caused by dancers on the walkway, Ross and McCarthy are withholding judgment until tests are completed. That may take months. “The Hyatt is a daring structure,” Ross says. “It needed more than just rote engineering—it needed a high dedication to details, particularly at joints and connections. There’s no easy way of knowing if that was done. I hope it was.”