PEOPLE-Local 645

  • Quality of Life Alliance

O’Donnell Investigation Raises More Questions Than Answers

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on July 9, 2010

From Milwaukee County First:

On June 24, 2010, a terrible incident occurred when a 27,000 pound concrete facade fell off of the front of the O’Donnell Park parking structure, killing a fifteen year old boy and injuring two other people.

Shortly after the accident, it was announced that the Milwaukee Sheriff’s Office and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office would be conducting an investigation into the incident in an effort to determine the cause.  In a press conference, Sheriff David Clarke advised that there would be no speculation as to what the cause was, and went as far as intervening when a reporter tried to question Scott Walker about deferred maintenance.

Despite the Sheriff’s words, it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be the case.  Shortly after the holiday weekend, “sources familiar with the investigation” (read Scott Walker’s office) started leaking information to steer the local media into looking at the problem as being strictly a constructional issue.  Walker even was so bold as to tell reporters openly that the investigation was focusing on the construction and installation of the facade.

What we have learned from these “inside sources” is that instead of using four pins to secure the facade to the structure, only two were.  We also know that the two pins were not located in any of the precast spots that the four pins were to be placed.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has provided a graphic which demonstrates how the facade was supposed to be attached.

What is not known is who approved the change in the mounting, or if it was engineered to meet the needed specs for holding the facade up.

Today, we also learned that the family of the deceased boy, Jared Kellner, has retained the services of Cannon and Dunphy, to investigate the causes of the collapse and to pursue anyone who is at fault for this tragedy, including the installer.  Any lawsuit will also name Milwaukee County, who is the owner and responsible for maintenance and upkeep.

We also know that the Sheriff’s Department is asking for help from the public, in the form of photos or videos that were taken that may include the east side of the parking structure in the background.

Despite the leaked information, or maybe because of it, there are more questions being raised than there are being answered.

Within hours of the tragedy, County Board Chairman Lee Holloway issued a press release expressing his sympathy, and calling for an immediate investigation of the other buildings to ensure that there would be no more similar tragedies.  Milwaukee County First echoed those sentiments.

However, Scott Walker criticized Holloway for this and called it irresponsible.  Despite of this, a week later, Walker joined Holloway in announcing a special safety inspection to be done of all County owned buildings.  Walker has never offered an explanation for this change of heart, but whatever the reason, he should be commended for coming to his senses and doing that much correctly.

Questions have also been raised as to whether the Sheriff’s Office and DA’s Office should be conducting the investigation.  Without impugning the integrity of either office, it would appear that this would be at the very least a conflict of interest.  It is common for governmental bodies to ask for special investigations in situations like this.

There were originally reports that OSHA was getting involved to make sure that the parking structure did not present any further risks to safety.  Was that all they did?  Why would they, or the state, or even another county, be asked to conduct the investigation?

While it is still early in the investigation, a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one, is apparent in how the investigation is being steered, or rather, how the information regarding the investigation is being released.

While it appears that the construction of the building, given its troubled history and the discovered change from the design to the actual installation, that this is a valid concern and should be thoroughly investigated, it should not be presumed that this is the only issue leading to the disaster.

On July 6, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s story on the latest part of this investigation also included this snippet (emphasis ours):

Though the connections are drawing the interest of investigators, including the sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office, it’s not yet clear whether a change in design would explain why the panel dislodged and fell.

Engineering experts caution that there is rarely one villain in such accidents, and unlikely suspects can play a surprising role.

“Usually the small details cause big problems,” said Al Ghorbanpoor, chairman of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s civil engineering department.

Also to be explored is whether the county took steps over the years to block moisture from getting into the joints connecting the panels to the walls. Moisture could have corroded the connections, said Ghorbanpoor, who has investigated building failures.

A similar phrasing was also used in the next day’s article (again, emphasis ours):

Experts agree that the top of the slab, where the panel was connected to the parking garage wall, is the key weight-bearing point. They also say that hanging such panels – which are purely a decorative feature – is a straightforward job that doesn’t require sophisticated engineering.

“There could be 10 different ways of doing this,” said Al Ghorbanpoor, chairman of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s civil engineering department. Investigators will want to check the design, the quality of construction and maintenance of the panel, he said.

There was a survey completed towards the end of 2009, but county officials have already stated that this did not include the facades.  The last thorough inspection was conducted five or six years ago.  Since then, the survey had found cracks in the concrete and problems with water seepage and water damage to other parts of the structure. (O’Donnel Park VFA Items)

As any construction engineer, or even home owner, can tell you, water can do a lot of damage to concrete.  If there were already cracks, the damage can happen at an accelerated rate.  Also, this particular area of the structure faces the lake and is exposed to a lot of weather, including the heat of the rising summer sun to cold winter blasts off of the lake.  The combination of all these elements could easily be conceived to be a contributing factor to the failure of the facade.

On the day of the incident, Holloway released the above linked document showing the findings of the result of the survey from last year.  The very next day, Walker produced the same document, but with an added column showing that the issues raised had been addressed.  What is not clear is when those issues had been addressed and why it had not been reported previously.  Those two things also need to be looked into.

Another question that needs investigated is whether the fact that Walker has been raiding the capital funds, which had historically gone into building inspections and maintenance and similar projects, and using that money to cover the holes in the operational costs of his budgets, contributed to any possible deferred maintenance issues.  Likewise, does the fact that he had cut the number of building inspectors down to one have an impact on all of this is worthy of further consideration.

Hopefully, these issues will be addressed, and reported, as the investigation into the cause or causes of this horrible incident proceeds.

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