Sta­dium poles re­called

Agency halts use of light tow­ers sim­i­lar to ones that have fallen at schools across the coun­try

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Eric Dex­heimer

The U.S. Con­sumer Prod­uct Safety Com­mis­sion on Tues­day an­nounced a na­tion­wide re­call of sta­dium light­ing poles man­u­fac­tured by Whitco Co. LLP, the Fort Worth com­pany that de­signed and sold about a dozen of the gi­ant tow­ers that have crashed with­out warn­ing dur­ing the past three years.

Most of the ac­ci­dents oc­curred at pub­lic schools in Texas; two, in Hays County and in Round Rock, were in Cen­tral Texas.

The fed­eral agency’s re­call fol­lows the Amer­i­can-States­man’s re­port­ing last year link­ing the now-bank­rupt Whitco to de­fec­tive poles across the coun­try. In ad­di­tion to the poles that have top­pled, nearly 100 more were found to have de­vel­oped po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous cracks at their bases, most only a few years af­ter their in­stal­la­tion.

No one has been hurt be­cause of the faulty

tow­ers, al­though there have been sev­eral close calls. In March 2009, when a 125-foot pole at the Hays school district’s Bob Shel­ton Sta­dium top­pled and slammed onto a high school gym­na­sium, about 60 peo­ple were in the sta­dium, wait­ing to watch a soc­cer game.

The Whitco pole that fell a month later at a play­ing field in Union­town, Pa., crushed bleach­ers and crashed across a field that, if it were not for bad weather, would have been bustling with school­child­ren.

The prod­uct safety com­mis­sion’s an­nounce­ment fol­lows a warn­ing it is­sued in Au­gust, rec­om­mend­ing that own­ers of sta­di­ums with Whitco poles should have them checked for cracks. Tues­day’s re­call, for poles 70 feet and taller made by Whitco, states that “con­sumers should im­me­di­ately stop us­ing re­called prod­ucts un­til they are in­spected and re­paired.”

“The poles can frac­ture or crack and fall over, pos­ing a risk of se­ri­ous in­jury or death to pa­trons and by­standers from be­ing hit or crushed.”

In a news re­lease, the agency es­ti­mated that the re­call would in­volve more than 2,500 poles. Many Texas school dis­tricts have al­ready checked their ath­letic field light tow­ers and, where nec­es­sary, re­moved or added sup­port to their Whitco poles.

Most of the poles that have fallen or cracked were sold by Whitco be­tween 2000 and 2006, when the com­pany de­clared bank­ruptcy. En­gi­neers said nor­mally the huge tow­ers should last sev­eral decades be­fore need­ing to be re­placed.

Started as a fam­ily busi­ness in 1969, Whitco was sold in 2000 to a group of out-of-state in­vestors who tried to in­crease sales dra­mat­i­cally, for­mer work­ers said.

Whitco’s poles have top­pled in Mas­sachusetts, Penn­syl­va­nia, Ken­tucky, Mis­sis­sippi and South Dakota. A few fell at mi­nor league base­ball sta­di­ums.

But many of the de­fec­tive struc­tures were along play­ing fields at Texas high schools. In March 2009, af­ter the Hays County ac­ci­dent, the Texas As­so­ci­a­tion of School Busi­ness Of­fi­cials sent an e-news­let­ter to 5,000 mem­bers warn­ing them of the haz­ard.

The warn­ing didn’t spread ev­ery­where. The last re­ported Whitco pole to fall top­pled just over three months ago. On March 29, a 75-foot sta­dium light pole at Lib­erty Chris­tian School in Ar­gyle, a town in Den­ton County, col­lapsed on a soc­cer field. The school even­tu­ally re­placed three other Whitco poles af­ter cracks were dis­cov­ered in them.

Be­cause Whitco is de­funct, the school dis­tricts and other sta­dium own­ers have had to bear the cost of re­plac­ing and re­pair­ing the 1-to 4-ton tow­ers them­selves.

Hays County spent nearly $700,000 re­plac­ing its light poles and re­pair­ing dam­age from the fallen tower. The Car­roll school district in South­lake, out­side of Dal­las, spent nearly $300,000 in­spect­ing and re­plac­ing its four Whitco poles.

Foren­sic re­ports delv­ing into the cause of the poles’ fail­ures have reached dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions. Sev­eral have cited rapid vi­bra­tions caused by winds, and oth­ers have blamed de­sign or weld­ing flaws.

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