Column: Another Tragic Collapse

In the 1960s there were so many causes to demonstrate for or against it was difficult to focus on any one.  The biggest issue was of course the war in Vietnam, but that was far away and had its most awful impact on the poor and minority communities. The truly wealthy could get a deferment for heel spurs and continue their rigorous schedule of golfing without worrying about military service. College age men suddenly discovered that they had a variety of medical conditions, including homosexuality, that sympathetic physicians would attest to and which would lead to their being classified 4F, in other words, “medically unfit” to serve in the military. One soldier who concealed his sexual preference to get in the army but then announced that he was gay after distinguishing himself in battle noted ironically, “ I got a medal for killing a man and was discharged from the military for loving a man.”

There was also talk about sex and birth control, both of which the public was reminded on a daily basis were evil.  People were arrested for discussing measures to prevent pregnancy. No one seemed comfortable with the notion that some women should be allowed to have an abortion, even if they were raped by their fathers or they carried a diseased fetus that would have a brief and painful life if it did survive its nine months solitary confinement. Drugs were widely used, and the government launched a war against them. The survival of civilization relied upon our winning that war.  We lost that war and any hope for the future of mankind.  Most people smoked cigarettes and drank various alcoholic beverages, but the consensus was that these were harmless practices. If you smoked marijuana, you would lose your mind.

A chaotic decade bled into the next, and people kept shouting at each other about what were obviously important concerns; and then came May 4, 1970. There was a palpable silence. A physician whom I knew well was about to walk past me without even nodding.  He was pale, and I thought he was ill. I waved to get his attention and asked, “Are you okay?” He shook his head and said, “Four shot dead at Kent State.”

Few outside Ohio knew where or what Kent State University was, but on May 4, 1970, most white, middle-class Americans were speechless. Four unarmed, white men and women were shot dead by National Guard troops brought on campus to restore order during an antiwar demonstration.  Nine other students were wounded but survived. America gasped. You might think that with the carnage in Vietnam, the inner city gun violence, the lung cancer epidemic, the lynchings in the South, and a hundred other causes of premature death in America at that time that the addition of four more bodies to the pile of innocents would have little impact, and you would be wrong.

The obvious questions were “How could this happen here?” and “Who was responsible?” The murdered and wounded students were the children of ordinary people. They were not insurrectionists storming the seat of power of the nation. They were protesting a war of which the majority of Americans had long tired. They wanted to finish school and enjoy the next 60 or 70 years as free and ordinary citizens. 

In a moment, everything changed. Americans simply could not believe the National Guard troops would kill their children. They were supposed to guard, not kill, these noisy adolescents. Whether or not a woman should be allowed to take a medicine to avoid having a child and whether a man should be allowed to use a nonalcoholic intoxicant no longer seemed all that important. Protecting our children from our government, whether it be in southeast Asia or in Ohio, unexpectedly became a pre-occupation for most parents.

There have been many other moments in American history when our petty complaints and differences were blown aside by tragedy. Most will think of Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the firing on Fort Sumter, the Boston Massacre and other fundamentally military incidents.

Now we add to the list the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida, on June 24, 2021. While politicians argued about Critical Race Theory, transgender rights, bathroom assignments, vaccination rejection and other such hot topics, people in a 40 year old, 12 story, luxury condominium were crushed to death by the collapse of reinforced concrete.  Suddenly who should be allowed into what bathroom and what history should be taught to those impressionable nine year olds seems less riveting than the more immediate question of “Will I survive the night in the building in which I live?”

Building collapses seem to occur with some regularity in southeast Asia, but the affected buildings are usually poorly maintained and contain sweat shops with perpetually exploited workers. The death toll in the Surfside tragedy was miniscule in comparison to the daily loss of life in America attributable to gun violence, motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, and a host of other causes, but the Champlain Towers collapse surprised the average citizen.This type of collapse is not supposed to affect relatively wealthy Americans living in luxury apartment buildings. If history is our guide, a protracted investigation of the causes of the building collapse will identify numerous unforeseeable factors attributable to no single person or entity.  In short, no one will be held accountable. That is why the injured will be left unsatisfied, and the warring lawyers will grow wealthy.

There is, however, another consequence of this type of tragedy that is somewhat useful. The failure of this type of building makes prospective tenants and buyers more skeptical of reassuring claims from builders and sellers. In response to that skepticism, government agencies sometimes enforce stricter building codes and more frequent inspections. At the very least, prospective and current tenants are less likely to believe those cracks in the basement are nothing to worry about.

This tragedy has also refocused concerns surrounding the monstrous high-rise buildings sprouting up in crowded U.S. cities, such as the Millennium Tower in San Francisco. This massive, 58 story, high-rise apartment building has been sinking about 2” a year since it was finished in 2009. It currently sits 18” deeper in the sand upon which it was built than when it was finished. More worrisome than its sinking is its tilting. Most calculations indicate that the top of the building is tilting at least 6” to the northwest. Attempts are being made to anchor the building to the bedrock to which its foundation was not originally secured. Reassurances from engineers that this luxury monolith is safe despite its restless footing have been undermined by the Surfside experience.

Given the popularity of high-rise buildings, one must conclude that these towering death traps fill a primordial need to see what is coming up the hill (or the elevator) to threaten us.  Unless we can build more resilient edifices or at least devise instruments to warn us of their impending failure, we may find the exhilarating views they offer will end up ‘taking our breath away’ permanently.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.