Bob Dillman is the chief facilities officer at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, and can be reached at email@example.com. Jay Klingel is director, business management services, in U-Va's facilities department; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is adapted from a presentation made at APPA's 2001 Educational Conference in Montreal.
As luck would have it, Graduation Saturday in 1997 was a glorious spring day in Charlottesville, Virginia. The university's commencement exercises are conducted outside in the area of the university known as Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village, which was built in the early 1800s. It is both an international architectural achievement and a vibrant part of our student life. Senior university administrators and faculty and their families live in nine of the ten Pavilions facing the Lawn. Fifty-six students live in the original student rooms, which connect the Pavilions. Even though these dormitories lack modern conveniences, namely bathrooms, students fiercely compete for the right to live in these small rooms inhabited by students since Jefferson's era.
This Academical Village, and particularly the Lawn, has been the site of many prestigious events. In addition to the annual graduation event, in recent years Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev, the Olympic Torch run, several Presidents, the Queen of England, the Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and the Japanese Imperial family have all walked down the Lawn, the centerpiece of Jefferson's architectural marvel.
Typically, the visits from heads of state are preceded by a thorough inspection and investigation by the U.S. Secret Service and/or the FBI. The university employs a curator and architect for the Academical Village. And, each year, the week before graduation many university managers, and facilities managers, and trades people are moving about the Lawn area, all trying to ensure we are as close to perfection as possible for graduation. So, in addition to scheduled preventive maintenance inspections, and a formal facility inspection program, this area of our university grounds is under a constant and thorough watchful eye.
During graduation, students and faculty walk down the Lawn, this long, terraced green space flanked by the historic Student Rooms and Pavilions. As many as 30,000 students, faculty, family, and guests fill this space to participate in and watch the graduation event. Just as on hundreds of college campuses across the country, this special day in May is filled with celebration, hope, pride, and anticipation.
On May 18, 1997, our special day was touched with tragedy. Without warning, a balcony on Pavilion I, one of the original Jeffersonian buildings, collapsed, killing one and injuring 24. That event, and what transpired in the following hours, days, and months have had a significant impact on the university, and more particularly, on our facilities organization.
Immediately after the collapse, the university's police department and facilities management organization teamed to control the area, provide access for rescue personnel, and make temporary repairs to prevent further damage. The decision was made immediately to continue with graduation exercises and, in fact, the vast majority of visitors and guests at the event had no knowledge that there had been an accident. Our director of operations at the time, Dick Fowler, worked with university senior administrators and the university police to make these immediate repairs.
In the days following the event, university administrators met to determine the appropriate course of action. The University Hospital and its medical staff were able to provide emergency and long-term care for those injured in the accident. The university decided to engage a structural forensics firm to thoroughly investigate the cause of the collapse. Emergency procurements were conducted for construction services to rebuild similar balconies on the university grounds with the same structural properties. Strategies for responding to the inevitable press inquiries were established and communicated.
During the ensuing months, the university and many of its staff prepared for and eventually were involved in the legal proceedings resulting from suits filed by those injured in the accident. It was during those legal proceedings that we learned the value of a comprehensive maintenance program, an ongoing facilities assessment program, the credentials of our senior staff, and the knowledge of our trades people.
So what did exactly happen to cause the balcony, on that day of all days, to collapse at that time? How could we have known? What signs did we have?
The Balcony Structure
The balcony structure was of heart pine; it was supported by four wrought iron rods suspended from a roof overhang on one side and a hinge joint at the building. This is similar to five other pavilions on the Lawn; a total of 19 rods supported the six suspended pavilion balconies. All rods have been removed and examined. All are apparently original early 1800s wrought iron.
Only the failed rod had significant deterioration, and it had actually corroded through twice during its lifetime at points about an inch apart. Both instances were completely within an undeteriorated, apparently original, heart pine beam.
Until catastrophic failure there was no external indication of rod distress. Over 90 percent of the rod has been visible for 175 years and is in like-new condition. Extensive chemical, metallurgical, and stress analyses gave no clues as to why one of 19 rods failed…twice. There were high levels of potentially corrosive chemicals, but other solid rods had higher levels. Metallurgy indicated the rod was original and had no significant occlusions, pits, or abnormalities. The failure was a true anomaly; a single point metal failure concealed within a 6" x 8" solid pine beam, which showed no evidence of moisture accumulation or damage of any kind.
To examine the failed section of rod would have required scaffolding to support the balcony, removal of tongue and groove planking deck and underside of the balcony to expose the rod end, and driving the rod from the beam which, we found from removal of the other rods, took considerable force and resulted in damage to the historic fabric. This is not something any facilities manager would normally do unless rust, rot, or other indicators were present; and there had been none.
During its most recent restoration, in 1986-88, all questionable balcony wood had been replaced; visible portions of the four metal rods supporting the balcony were examined and appeared sound; and the balcony was fastened more securely to the brick front of the Pavilion with steel attachments. When the northernmost rod of the balcony failed, it shifted loads to the wood structure, which in turn failed, allowing about one-third of the balcony to fall about 15 feet to the paved walkway underneath. Two loud "cracks" were heard as the balcony failed; the first the rod snapping; the second, the main wood beam failing. In the seconds between the failures, two persons actually moved to the two-thirds of the balcony that remained attached. Seventeen others fell to the ground with it.
Where are we today? Unfortunately, we're a lot smarter about litigation. Although emotionally and professionally taxing, the litigation process taught us who we were as an organization. Originally suits were filed against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the facilities engineering firm we had hired to do a condition inspection of the Lawn facilities, and our architect and curator for the Academical Village. Later, suits were filed against three individuals involved with managing the university's facility assessment program, and suits were pending against the chief facilities officer, his predecessor, and the former deputy chief facilities officer.
The suits claimed negligence and omissions on the part of the defendants in their duties to protect the public. The legal terms that before were issues of vague familiarity-sovereign immunity, statute of limitations, personal liability limits, tolling the statute, gross negligence-became terms that had direct and significant impact on our employees named in these suits. Many others were concerned that they might be named, and that the facilities organization's name was being sullied by something no one could have prevented.
All the suits filed against the Commonwealth and its individual employees were eventually settled without going to trial. The press release accompanying the final suits settlement indicated that "the claimants and clients all deserve final resolution of these cases…continuing this litigation is too costly, financially and emotionally, for everyone concerned."
There were some key points related to the defense that helped our position throughout the legal proceedings:
After almost two years of depositions there was no smoking gun. All of our facilities management employees deposed testified the same.
Since the Pavilion balcony accident, several facility or grounds safety issues have arisen: potential hazard trees, compromised tendons in pre-cast structural members, cracks in plaster ceilings. We never consider a course of action now without first thinking of the balcony incident.
We remain very appreciative of our programs of condition inspections, preventive maintenance, training and education, and certification and licensing; and of our policies that encourage entrepreneurship and individual responsibility and accountability. We are also most appreciative of the university senior management who stood with us throughout, and the state attorney general's office that defended us with the highest possible caliber attorneys.