February 5, 2009 in City

Garage manager said he marked wall for replacing

Pullman woman died after car hit panel
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Thirteen years before a woman died when her car hit a wall that gave way at the River Park Square garage, the garage’s manager may have marked the panel to be replaced, according to a 2006 sworn declaration the manager gave about the incident.

In the statement, which was obtained by The Spokesman-Review, former garage manager Rex Franklin said that during a meeting he attended in 1993, mall owners “clearly rejected” a suggestion from a structural engineer to erect cables in front of the walls.

“Rather, I was instructed (to) go through the garage with a can of red spray paint and apply a paint mark to those spandrels I believed should be repaired or replaced,” said Franklin, the garage manager in the early 1990s, in the declaration. “I did as directed and when I finished, I had marked so many spandrels that the RPS owners decided it was not economically feasible to replace all of them.”

River Park Square Attorney Les Weatherhead this week pointed to engineering studies of the walls. He noted that the wall that gave way in April 2006 was one of 15 spandrels, or sections of wall, tested in 1993 after River Park Square hired an engineering firm to study them. The wall was retested after the 2006 incident.

“Both tests concluded that the spandrel was capable of resisting 6,000 pounds or more of force, as prescribed by code requirements at relevant times,” Weatherhead wrote in a letter in response to an inquiry from The Spokesman-Review. “In other words, the actual spandrel was actually tested both before and after the accident and was found in both instances to be within code specifications.”

River Park Square is a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

In his declaration, which has been in the possession of federal investigators, Franklin said that based on a photo, the wall hit by Jo Ellen Savage’s car appeared to have been marked by him for replacement. He added that based on his observations of the garage “few if any of the spandrels which I had marked for replacement or repair have had the benefit of any attention to date.”

Weatherhead said the engineering report commissioned by the mall after the incident described marks on the panel but made no mention of red paint.

“I have not been able to locate any useful images of the spandrel, nor have I been able to find anyone who can confirm or dispute the presence of any red painted marks on the spandrel that broke,” Weatherhead said.

He said the garage meets code, and he noted that the city reissued a certificate of occupancy after reviewing engineering data about the walls when they were reinforced after the crash in 2006.

The Spokane County prosecuting attorney’s office is investigating if manslaughter charges are applicable in the death of Savage, a Pullman resident whose car fell from the fifth floor of the garage in April 2006. Witnesses said the wall gave way after her car hit the panel at a slow speed. The Cowles Co.’s insurers later agreed to pay more than $1 million to Savage’s family as part of a civil litigation. The garage installed metal bars and plates on the walls at the end of 2006 to increase their strength.

In September, records from a federal grand jury examining the incident were turned over to Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker. Federal officials said no federal charges were applicable. Tucker said last week he is considering asking for assistance on the case from the state attorney general’s office. Attempts made to reach Tucker on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Franklin’s declaration said River Park Square hired engineers to study the walls because of the “relatively frequent spandrel failures” in the early 1990s. He said that after a failure in 1990, the front of a car “rested on its undercarriage on the parking deck as it dangled over the garage’s edge over the walkway below and its front wheels were unsupported.” He described a similar failure in 1991.

Attempts made to reach Franklin this week were unsuccessful.

Franklin’s declaration said the decision not to erect cables came at a meeting that included James P. Cowles, then-president of Citizens Realty, the Cowles Co. subsidiary that oversaw the garage; Robert Robideaux, who was then the manager of River Park Square; and Terry Goebel, owner of Goebel Construction.

Goebel, who said he was interviewed by federal investigators as part of the grand jury probe, said Wednesday that he didn’t recall the 1993 meeting described by Franklin. He noted that River Park Square replaced several panels in the early 1990s. Goebel Construction began doing work on the garage after it was built in 1974.

Cables weren’t erected in front of the walls after 1993 because testing indicated they were stronger than required by code, Goebel said. Goebel added that at the time, plans were beginning for the addition to the garage.

“When the garage was expanded in 1998, there was a lot of work done on the panels,” Goebel said.

The 1993 Atwood-Hinzman study that suggested installing cabling acknowledged “contradictory information.” The study included strength tests conducted by Budinger & Associates that showed the walls “to be well within the generally accepted range for the panels in question,” said Scott Walters, of Budinger & Associates, in the report.

But engineer Richard Atwood wrote that given the previous vehicle collisions with the wall, “it appears that a problem exists” and that “in our opinion, the panels are not resisting the required lateral loading of 6,000 pounds although the engineering analysis indicates that they should.”

He said one solution to the contradictions would be to “assume the panel will fail and to add steel cables to stop vehicles before they impact the panels.”

After Savage’s death in 2006, River Park Square hired Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to test the walls. Its report said River Park Square first hired Atwood-Hinzman in 1990 and that the garage took the advice of the firm’s 1990s report that recommended replacing 18 panels. It also argues that Atwood-Hinzman’s 1993 report “did not provide the building owner with a clear direction for future assessment of the remaining vehicle barriers.”

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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