Light tower re­call spurs area schools to scram­ble

Ut, Le­an­der, Lib­erty Hill on list of places with faulty poles

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

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.

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