Light tower recall spurs area schools to scramble
Ut, Leander, Liberty Hill on list of places with faulty poles
Baylor University still has a few, as does Texas A&M University; the University of Texas and the City of Shiner might or might not. Athletic fields at Liberty Hill High School could have them, as well as a baseball field at Leander High School.
“They” are the high-mast athletic lighting poles manufactured by Whitco Co. LLP, the now-defunct company whose poles have been crashing to the ground across Texas and the country. On Tuesday, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall of the towers that soar up to 130 feet into the air and weigh as much as 4 tons.
The agency also released a list of facilities it said might have Whitco poles looming over them. Several were located in and around Central Texas.
Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said the Waco university knew it still had several Whitco poles lighting its tennis courts, but that the university had hired an engineer last summer to make sure they were solid. The poles, she added, required “minor repairs.”
The recall sent other facility managers scrambling. The University of Texas thought
it had determined the campus was free of Whitco poles. But Tuesday’s announcement, which identified UT as still owning some of the towers, drew officials back to their purchasing records, said Robert Speer, manager of utilities for the university. He said school officials are investigating whether light poles at Clark Field, a student recreational field near the intersection of San Jacinto Boulevard and 21st Street, are Whitco’s.
“If we find out they are, we will replace them,” Speer said.
Spokesmen for the City of Shiner and the Leander school district, both identified by the federal consumer agency as still owning Whitco poles, said they, too, were checking their utility records. But even if the schools’ fields are lit by Whitco, said Leander spokesman Dick Ellis, “We’ve always had a structural engineer regularly inspect the poles.”
Liberty Hill schools were closed for vacation, and officials could not be reached for comment. Texas A&M’s Pemberthy Field, used by students for recreational sports, also still has Whitco poles, according to the product safety commission. A spokeswoman for the university said officials were checking to see whether that information was accurate.
The safety commission urged owners and operators of athletic fields to closely inspect their lighting poles and, if they are found to have been sold by Whitco, to have a licensed engineer test them for structural soundness. The agency estimates that about 2,500 Whitco poles are still in service across the country.
“The severity of risk is such that we wanted to come out with the strongest message possible,” said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the consumer product safety agency. “We feel fortunate that no one has been hurt so far. The risk of death is very serious.”
Nationwide, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said 11 Whitco poles have toppled without warning. The American-Statesman, which was the first to report the story in April 2009, has confirmed 14 fallen poles sold by the company. Stadium owners, many of them public school districts, have had to replace nearly 100 more after potentially dangerous cracks were discovered at the poles’s bases.
David Coates, vice president for ReliaPOLE Solutions in Magnolia, said his pole inspection company has been called in to test about 200 Whitco poles nationwide in the past year and a half, about a third of those in Texas. “A large percentage, over 50 percent, were found to have issues,” he said. The most common defect, Coates said, was a base plate designed too thin to hold up the huge pole and attached lights.
No one has been hurt by a falling Whitco pole, but in one instance, at Hays County’s Bob Shelton Stadium, a 125-foot pole crashed onto a gymnasium roof while nearby spectators watched. In two other instances, the poles slammed onto empty bleachers.
The commission’s recall came 15 months after it opened an investigation into the rash of faulty towers. Wolfson said the agency’s consumer product inquiries typically wrap up much more quickly. He said the Whitco case took longer than usual because there was no responsible party to assist agency officials: “We didn’t have anybody to turn to for reimbursement, repair or refunds.”
The Texas attorney general’s office also opened an investigation into Whitco poles last September. Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the agency, said the case was still open and that “the recall only intensifies that work.”
Begun in Fort Worth as a family business in 1969, Whitco was sold to a group of out-ofstate investors in 2000. Lighting poles sold by the company typically used metal tubes from Mexico. Another Fort Worth company then fabricated the towers to Whitco’s specifications.
Some former workers said a push to expand the company after 2000 led to design changes that may have been responsible for the weaknesses of the poles manufactured until Whitco filed for bankruptcy in 2006.
Dennis Depenbusch, the Kansas investor who led the 2000 takeover, confirmed Wednesday that investigators for the product safety agency had contacted him early on. “I knew it was headed this way,” he said. “I provided them with as much information as I could.” He said he had no involvement in the day-to-day operations of Whitco after he purchased it.
All of the poles that have toppled were installed only a few years earlier. Engineers say the structures, which are designed to withstand high winds, should last for several decades. Forensic reports have disagreed about the cause of the failures, blaming wind-induced vibrations, poor welding and faulty design calculations that overloaded the poles with lights and fixtures beyond their structural capacity to hold them.
Because Whitco is defunct, school districts and other stadium owners have had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars themselves to repair or replace their lighting towers.