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Building Collapse Commission

January 23, 2014

Bob Brehm and Scott Gabriel Knowles

Bob Brehm came to Drexel to get away from the cameras.

As a construction engineering manager for the state of New Jersey, overseeing projects such as the $100 million renovation of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, he’d long been accustomed to talking with the press. So when he left for a “retirement gig” at Drexel, he was glad to leave those days behind.

Or so he thought. All of a sudden, this past summer, Brehm found himself sitting down for an interview with “Good Morning America,” talking with every Philadelphia TV news station, even penning an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His newfound anonymity was out the window, but he wasn’t complaining. Some situations are serious enough that things like a distaste for media attention don’t matter as much anymore. One of those is when a building collapse kills six people not far from your campus, and reporters are looking for someone to explain, to some degree, how this could happen.

That’s how Brehm, now an associate teaching professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, became “the face of the building collapse” in the news media, he said.

“I kind of lost my anonymity,” Brehm said. And now he’s stepping up to accept an even greater responsibility.

Brehm — along with Scott Gabriel Knowles, another Drexel faculty member — was among 12 people appointed in November by Mayor Michael Nutter to a commission to investigate the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections in the wake of the deadly June collapse that destroyed an adjacent Salvation Army building at 2138 Market St. and determine how such tragedies can be prevented in the future.

Both Brehm and Knowles say that, from all indications, this commission will be given the opportunity to do some serious work — and perhaps even create a national model for safety measures in big cities with aging, crumbling structures.

“I’m going to take him at his word,” Brehm said of the mayor. “If this was political theater, I wouldn’t be interested. I’m going into this with the mindset that we’re going to do something real.”

The commission, which is expected to produce a report on its findings by July, has members from a wide variety of fields and disciplines, including labor groups, the construction industry, the City Council and academia. Even the two Drexel professors on the board have quite different backgrounds: Brehm is a construction engineer, Knowles a historian.

Knowles, who studies the history of disasters and responses to them, said this commission has several traits indicating it could lead to meaningful changes. It’s truly independent, he said. It contains a wide range of perspectives. And its charge is not so much to look back at the Market Street collapse as to look forward and determine how the L&I department can best keep Philadelphians safe in the future.

“They haven’t sent us off to work a math problem, and they haven’t sent us off to find out who’s to blame,” Knowles said.

Neither Brehm nor Knowles aimed to be part of the city’s response to the building collapse before they received calls from Nutter asking for their help. But each fills a distinct role.

Brehm, a licensed professional engineer and professor with lots of experience working on public building projects, was a natural choice when media outlets scrambled for experts to comment on the collapse when it happened. After he took part in a phone interview with Philadelphia’s 6ABC shortly after the collapse, other outlets took notice. That ended up being the first of many interviews, including one with “Good Morning America.” After looking into the issue further, he wrote a column on the lessons to be learned from the collapse for the Philadelphia Inquirer’s opinion page, saying that engineers often don’t take proper precautions when undertaking demolitions in crowded cities.

His frequent media appearances, he guesses, must have drawn the mayor’s attention.

Knowles, meanwhile, apparently was called on because of his research background. He has researched and written about efforts to prevent and respond to disasters like the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, included in his book “The Disaster Experts.” He’s also written a book on the history of Philadelphia city planning.

He said he was heartened that the mayor was seeking a historical perspective on the situation.

“We’ve seen a lot of examples throughout history of investigations that don’t really change much,” Knowles said, and knowledge of what makes an investigation work will obviously help.

He said Nutter’s choice as the commission’s chairman — Glenn Corbett, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who helped with an investigation of the 2001 World Trade Center collapse — was also a good sign, because of the expertise and out-of-town perspective Corbett can provide.

Brehm, meanwhile, said he hopes he can help the commission come up with a set of guidelines that will help save lives — not just in Philadelphia but in other major cities around the United States, many of which have crumbling infrastructure that will need to be demolished and replaced in the near future. The Market Street collapse could have been foreseen, he said, but it also could have happened in a number of other cities where demolition just isn’t given as much preparation and thought as construction.

“It was a four-story building hanging over a one-story building. It really didn’t take an engineer to figure out it was falling down,” Brehm said. “I can’t tell you what force caused it to go this way as opposed to that way, but it was certainly foreseeable.”

A sound response from the commission, Knowles said, could also go a long way toward restoring faith in the city for a population that has endured other disasters in recent years, including the 2000 Pier 34 collapse and the 2012 Kensington factory fire.

“These are events that eventually can lead to an erosion of public trust,” Knowles said.

The commission’s job will be a complicated one, digging into an agency that oversees thousands of buildings in one of the country’s biggest cities. And its members don’t know what the results of the investigation might be yet, as the group just began meeting in November. But both Knowles and Brehm were cautiously optimistic that meaningful changes could come about because of the effort.

And the fact that two of the 20 membership slots went to Drexel faculty members, Knowles said, sends a message, as well. They are far from the only people at Drexel working to solve problems in the region, and the city has taken notice.

“I think it speaks to the reputation of the institution,” Knowles said.