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Dr. S. Shyam Sunder explains the science and engineering behind the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001.

S. Shyam Sunder led the Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He is now the director of NIST’s Special Programs Office and its Chief Data Officer. Sunder is a recipient of the Presidential Rank Award of Distinguished Executive (2017), and the Gold Medal Award (2005) from the U.S. Department of Commerce, its highest honor, for distinguished leadership of the WTC investigation. Sunder was elected to the National Academy of Construction in 2012.

Dr. S. Shyam Sunder
Senior Science Advisor and Lead WTC Investigator
National Institute of Standards and Technology


A major scientifically-based building and fire safety investigation of the World Trade Center
(WTC) collapse was completed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The talk will describe an investigation of unprecedented scope, scale, and complexity focused on the 110-story WTC towers and the 47-story WTC 7 building that was not hit by an airplane. Involving over 200 NIST staff and private sector experts, the investigation conclusively determined why and how the buildings collapsed and the associated occupant evacuation and emergency response.

The results of the NIST investigation have been used to make buildings, occupants, and first responders safer in future disasters. Through a partnership with private sector experts and the Nation’s building officials, more than 40 major and far reaching set of critical improvements were adopted in U.S. building and fire codes based on NIST recommendations within a record period of just five years. NIST’s WTC investigation represents the largest U.S. building failure investigation ever conducted. It has established the U.S. at the forefront of how building collapses are investigated and the underpinning science and engineering disciplines.

NIST is authorized by law to conduct investigations which seek to establish the technical causes of major U.S. building failures and evaluate the technical aspects of emergency response and evacuation procedures. Examples include the Joplin Tornado in 2013, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and the Rhode Island Station Night Club Fire in 2003. NIST is a neutral investigator and does not issue building standards or codes. However, NIST research and these investigations underpin and inform the development and promulgation of such codes and standards by the appropriate bodies.

NIST is a non-regulatory Agency within the Department of Commerce whose mission is to “promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. Research conducted at NIST has resulted in 5 Nobel Prizes and 2 National Medals of Science since 1997.


Dr. Shyam Sunder is a member of the NIST’s core senior executive team. He provides advice on—as well as assesses and addresses—a broad range of strategic, operational, and programmatic priorities. Previously, he served as Senior Science Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of Commerce (2013-17), founding director of NIST’s Engineering Laboratory (2010-13), director of its Building and Fire Research Laboratory (2006-10), and Division Chief within the Building and Fire Research Laboratory (1998-2004) among other positions.

Shyam received his Masters and Ph.D degrees from MIT and served on the MIT faculty from 1981-94. He was awarded the Gold Medal by the U.S. Department of Commerce (2005) and the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award (2017) for his service to the Nation in building and fire research.

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  • Ahmed Shehu
  • John Brandau

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