Es­ti­mated 6,500 peo­ple have been in­jured in deck col­lapses since 2003

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY LISA LEFF AND MARTHA MEN­DOZA

An es­ti­mated 6,500 peo­ple have been rushed to emer­gency rooms with in­juries from col­laps­ing bal­conies and porches, while 29 — in­clud­ing six col­lege stu­dents in Berke­ley this week — have been killed since 2003.

One rea­son, ex­perts say, is the struc­tures are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to dry rot.

“It’s all about cre­at­ing a safe struc­ture that has en­durance, that has a rea­son­able life ex­pectancy,” said David Helfant, who iden­ti­fied po­ten­tial flaws in de­sign and con­struc­tion af­ter an unof­fi­cial in­spec­tion of the Berke­ley bal­cony that col­lapsed.

“When I see some­thing like that in a town I work and live in, it’s ex­tremely de­press­ing, it’s up­set­ting,” he said.

A Con­sumer Prod­uct Safety Com­mis­sion anal­y­sis for The As­so­ci­ated Press es­ti­mated that 4,600 emer­gency room vis­its were as­so­ci­ated with deck col­lapses in the past decade and another 1,900 with porch fail­ures.

With mil­lions of ER vis­its a year in the U.S., “the type of in­ci­dent that hap­pened in Berke­ley ap­pears to be rare,” com­mis­sion spokesman Alexan­der Filip said based on data col­lected from 100 hos­pi­tals to make the pro­jec­tions.

The Worst Col­lapse

One of the worst col­lapses oc­curred in 2003, when a porch fell in Chicago and killed 13 peo­ple. The com­mis­sion iden­ti­fied just 10 fa­tal­i­ties that oc­curred since then — un­til Tues­day.

The Berke­ley bal­cony snapped off the fifth floor of an apart­ment build­ing, toss­ing 13 peo­ple to the street 50 feet be­low. Seven sur­vivors are be­ing treated in hos­pi­tals, while fu­ner­als are be­ing planned for the six who died.

Ex­perts and city of­fi­cials have said the 40-square-foot bal­cony might have snapped off be­cause sup­ports had dry rot­ted, a prob­lem that struc­tural engi­neers say can be pre­vented through proper de­sign, con­struc­tion and main­te­nance aimed at seal­ing out wa­ter.

Left un­re­paired, dry rot can weaken bal­conies and cre­ate col­lapse haz­ards, say struc­tural engi­neers.

“This can­tilevered wood bal­cony ap­pears to be se­verely rot­ted at its sup­port,” struc­tural engi­neer Peter Curry said while look­ing at pic­tures of the Berke­ley bal­cony. “That’s usu­ally a prob­lem with the wa­ter­proof­ing. These should not break like this.”

Dry rot oc­curs when wa­ter gets into poorly ven­ti­lated ar­eas of build­ings and a fun­gus starts to de­cay the tim­ber. If left unchecked, wood can fall apart or turn to pow­der.

The Berke­ley apart­ment com­plex was built by Segue Con­struc­tion and com­pleted in 2007. Com­pany spokesman Sam Singer said the firm has never “had an in­ci­dent like this in its history.”

Segue did not re­spond to fur­ther re­quests for com­ment.

At­tor­neys Thomas Miller and his daugh­ter Rachel Miller, who spe­cial­ize in con­struc­tion de­fect law­suits, say wa­ter prob­lems — mold and dry rot — are the big­gest cul­prits in such le­gal ac­tions.

“Nearly ev­ery case is be­cause of wa­ter,” Rachel Miller said. “Wa­ter gets into the build­ing. You have to an­tic­i­pate that’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

The Millers haven’t han­dled any col­lapse cases. But they have sued and set­tled law­suits that al­lege bal­conies have in­curred dry rot.

Bal­conies are now be­ing re­paired at a Mill­brae, Cal­i­for­nia, condo com­plex, another Segue pro­ject, be­cause of a law­suit the Millers filed in 2011.

Thomas Miller said land­lords and prop­erty man­agers “have to ex­pect that peo­ple will use bal­conies” and that they are re­quired to en­sure the bal­conies are safe, in­clud­ing be­ing free of dry rot.

Miller says prop­erty man­agers and condo as­so­ci­a­tions are re­quired to in­spect bal­conies an­nu­ally.

The Rev. Ai­dan McAleenan said fam­i­lies were fo­cus­ing on their loved ones rather than why the crowded fifth-floor bal­cony failed dur­ing a 21st birth­day party held by vis­it­ing Ir­ish col­lege stu­dents.

“We may well won­der and want to lash out and talk about the bal­cony and who built it,” McAleenan said Wed­nes­day evening at The Cathe­dral of Christ the Light in Oak­land. “But at the end of the day, what (fam­i­lies) want the most is to see their loved ones. They want to touch them, they want to hold them and they want to kiss them.”

The stu­dents who died were Ash­ley Dono­hoe, 22, of Rohn­ert Park, Cal­i­for­nia, and Olivia Burke, Eoghan Cul­li­gan, Nic­co­lai Schuster, Lor­can Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21-year-olds from Ire­land.

Au­topsy re­sults showed their causes of death as mul­ti­ple blunt in­juries.

A fu­neral for cousins Dono­hoe and Burke is planned Satur­day at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Co­tati, Cal­i­for­nia.

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