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OSHA Begins Looking for Answers Amid Jacksonville Garage Rubble

Mon December 17, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Brooks

Willie Edwards III was just trying to earn some extra money for Christmas presents for his children when he agreed to pickup an overnight shift from a co-worker.

Instead, Edwards, 26, became the focus of an intense search-and-rescue mission when the partially-built, six story Berkman Plaza 2 condominium parking garage in downtown Jacksonville collapsed just after 6 a.m. Dec. 6, killing Edwards and injuring 23 others.

Ask any contractor and they’ll tell you safety is the top priority on any job. Just a few days after Edwards body was found, investigators began digging through the rubble, searching for clues to why the garage collapsed and how to prevent future accidents.

Police said the incident began while construction workers were pouring concrete on the sixth floor of the garage. Construction began at about 2 a.m. Dec. 6 and the collapse happened during a shift change.

“I heard a crack and then it just crumbled,” said Rick Caldwell, a construction worker who was about to clock in for his shift. “The whole paving crew was inside. It was so crazy.”

Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department spokesperson Tom Francis said the scene looked like an earthquake hit.

“In 50 years, I have never seen a building collapse like this in Jacksonville,” said Ken Jefferson, a spokesperson for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

Construction started on Berkman Plaza 2 in 2006. The 23-story tower is being developed by Atlanta-based The Harbor Cos. The primary contractor on the garage is Choate Construction Co., also headquartered in Atlanta. Southern Pan Services of Lithonia, Ga., is the subcontractor doing the concrete work.

Choate is a construction and design-build company that focuses on corporate office, interiors, medical/biomedical, automotive, institutional, retail, manufacturing, industrial, multifamily, senior living and student housing. The company was established in 1989 and has 374 employees. It has built projects in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.

David Page, Choate’s chief financial officer, said they don’t know what caused the collapse yet.

In a written press statement, William Millard Choate, president of Choate Construction, said, “Upon completion of rescue operations, there are teams of professionals from all over the country assembled to begin this investigation.”

Work on the condominium has been suspended until an investigation into what caused the collapse is complete. There is no timetable as to when construction will resume.

Alan Travis, president of Berkman Plaza 2, said the company will conduct its own investigation into the collapse once the scene is cleared by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA investigators will study project plans and interview workers who witnessed the collapse to determine what happened, according the James Borders, director of OSHA’s Jacksonville office.

Borders said some of the things investigators will look for include:

• design flaws in a concrete component of the overall building

• defects in wooden forms built to hold newly poured concrete

• signs that too much weight was loaded onto any part of the garage

Borders said he didn’t know of any previous problems with the construction of the garage.

According to Borders, parking garage collapses are rare and could be caused by several factors, including design and construction flaws.

OSHA has six months from the time of the initial inspection to determine if any standards were violated and to issue any citations.

In Jacksonville, OSHA has investigated eight fatal accidents this year, including the one at Berkman Plaza 2. Most of those cases are still open. That’s one more than was investigated in the area in 2006. In 2005 there were three fatal accidents investigated in the area.

OSHA develops safety and health standards for the nation’s job sites. The agency conducts inspections to ensure those standards are being met and offers compliance assistance and training. The number of times a company is inspected depends on how busy it is.

Borders said the investigation will likely take at least two to three months. Fines could reach $70,000 and if OSHA determines that an accident occurred because of a willful violation, the case could become criminal.

According to city building records, the latest inspection discovered several cracks in the garage, including one that was 26 ft. (7.9 m) long.

Mayor’s office spokesperson Misty Skipper said the city will not have a role in the investigation until after OSHA finishes its work. The city will conduct its own investigation into the collapse and construction permitting.

Those familiar with construction accidents said the biggest challenge will be re-creating what happened. OSHA investigators will study engineering plans to determine where the collapse started.

Some of the clues they’ll follow include finding temporary supports for the lower floors. Building plans show where the supports are supposed to be located.

They’ll also look at metal reinforcement bars, which tie walls and floors together. Too much strain causes the bars to break.

Investigators also will look for defects in formwork, failed columns or slabs that could have failed because the sand, gravel and cement were mixed improperly and they will look at the surfaces of broken pieces of concrete and steel, which can sometimes reveal how the break happened.

Once the detective work is finished and a cause for the collapse is determined, steps can be taken to prevent further disasters.

There are already several precautions in place to prevent accidents like the Berkman collapse.

Large projects in Florida require the presence of a threshold inspector, who’s job is to identify problems and make sure they are corrected.

According to inspection reports for the new garage, a number of problems had been identified in the past and they were corrected quickly by the contractor.

Contractors and city officials say problems are not uncommon at a construction site and they are addressed as soon as they are discovered.

“We don’t know whether it was a design problem or a construction problem. We have no idea,” said Tom Goldsbury of Jacksonville’s building department. “It’s going to take months, probably, before we know.” CEG

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