Design flaw blamed in collapse of light poles at Texas schools

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by By MATTHEW HAAG / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:46 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 11:54 AM

Stadium light poles that have cracked or collapsed at schools across Texas and in other states probably weren't designed to support heavy stadium lights, structural engineers have determined.

Rows of stadium lights atop the poles, which were manufactured by now-bankrupt Fort Worth-based Whitco Co LLP, caused them to weaken and crack over several years and, in some cases, fall, engineers at Saginaw-based CHM Industries concluded.

"We do not know how many poles have been supplied by Whitco during this time frame or what percentage of their towers exhibit the same design flaw," CHM recently wrote in a letter to its clients. "What we do know is that there is a serious cause for concern in regard to installations of this nature as produced by Whitco in or around the year 2002."

The CHM engineers based those conclusions on stress tests using the specifications of a Whitco pole that fell at a Mississippi community college last year and another that crashed into a gymnasium at a school near Austin in March.

Thirteen stadium light poles sold by Whitco have fallen in recent years, the Austin American-Statesman reported last week. Two poles fell in early April in Sanger ISD near Denton. Last week, an 80-foot pole crashed onto an empty high school football field during a storm in Uniontown, Pa.

No one has been hurt or killed by the collapsed poles, which can reach 130 feet high and weigh up to 7,000 pounds.

The spate of collapses led the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal entity that usually inspects products such as cribs and toys, to announce last week that it's investigating the collapses. The commission could issue a recall.

"We take these incidents seriously," said spokeswoman Sonia Hayes-Pleasant.

The number of school districts reporting defective light poles has grown as word has spread in recent weeks. Carroll ISD in Southlake, Garland ISD and other area school districts removed cracked poles from their stadiums in early April. Reinforcements were placed on the eight poles at the Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco.

Last month, Wylie ISD workers assigned to replace lights at Pirate Stadium spotted cracks in two of the stadium's four 100-foot poles. Steel collars were welded to those bases to reinforce them until they can be replaced after the school year.

"Fortunately, our maintenance people noticed there was a problem," district spokeswoman Susan Daucus said. "Now we have someone monitoring them daily."

The district's insurance doesn't cover the damaged poles, and replacement lights poles and stadium lights are expected to cost $220,000, Daucus said. Because Whitco is bankrupt, most school districts won't be able to recoup the replacement costs.

Wylie ISD considered several companies that submitted bids for light poles at Pirate Stadium, which opened in 2003. District trustees approved the lowest offer: Whitco's.

Wylie ISD's construction manager, Jerry Gallagher, who recommended Whitco as the provider, said the company had an excellent reputation back then.

"They were a good company and sold lots of poles," Gallagher said. "Nobody knew anything was wrong with Whitco poles at the time."

Whitco had purchased large steel tubes from a company in Mexico, the American-Statesman reported. Then, according to Whitco's standards, Makers Co. Inc. of Fort Worth manufactured the tubes into light poles. Whitco started to create its own poles sometime in 2005.

No one knows how many defective Whitco poles may have been installed across the country. The company is gone, and no one has been able to reproduce a list of customers. But Whitco possibly sold hundreds of poles after the company changed ownership in 2001.

The first reports of faulty poles emerged in early 2007, when school districts and a minor-league baseball team in Kentucky noticed cracks in poles. Later that year, a parent walking around the baseball field at Rockwall Heath High School found a crack in a pole. The district then removed 11 poles that had visible hairline cracks.

Concerns about the defective poles recently escalated after a construction industry association that markets to school districts spread an alert. No government agency regulates the light pole industry, so no widespread, organized effort has been made to alert owners of Whitco poles.

The Texas Education Agency last week urged school districts to inspect their light poles immediately. But the TEA doesn't set standards for light pole construction at schools. In comparison, light poles placed along highways in Texas must meet TxDOT standards.

Dr. Stathis Meletis, a structural engineer professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the Whitco accidents might have been prevented if any government agency regulated steel quality.

"The steel is not checked for quality control," he said "It's not right. I guess if accidents happen, it will change eventually."

TIMELINE: FALLING STADIUM POLES

At least 80 defective poles sold by Whitco Co. LLP have been removed because of serious cracks. The following list documents some of the instances in which the poles collapsed:

Oct. 2005, Aberdeen, S.D.: A pole fell at a Northern State University athletic field.

Feb. 2007, Worcester, Mass.: A recently installed pole fell at a field at Worcester Technical High School.

April 2007, Lexington, Ky.: A 90-foot pole fell at Applebee's Park, where the Lexington Legends, a minor league baseball team, played.

December, Midlothian: A 70-foot pole collapsed on a football field.

December, Round Rock: A pole fell at a Round Rock ISD athletic complex.

March, Buda, Texas: A pole crashed into an empty gymnasium at Hays High School near Austin.

April, Sanger: Two poles fell on consecutive days at Sanger ISD's athletic complex.

April, Uniontown, Pa.: An 80-foot pole fell on Uniontown High School's football field during a storm.

SOURCES: Dallas Morning News research; Austin American-Statesman

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