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Details Emerge Slowly on Fatal Airport Sign Collapse

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Photo by Andrea Burdett for ENR; inset by Bryan Caniff
Birmingham, Ala. attorney says free-standing flight monitor structure, on which temporary wall support (circle inset) was added, isn't subject to building code enforcement; structures now have been taken down in the airport.
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Airport and city officials in Birmingham, Ala., are providing few details on what caused a 300-lb free-standing flight information display to topple onto a visiting family from Kansas City, leaving a 10-year-old dead and his mother and siblings seriously injured.

Participants confirm a probe is under way into the March 22 accident at the terminal, where a $201-million upgrade was just completed, adding that it now includes firms not part of the construction team.

As a closed session went underway to discuss accident issues, Al Denson, Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport Authority president, said on March 28 that determining the cause would require extended analysis.

"The assessment of blame is not a goal," he said.

While temporary wall supports were added to the flight-board structures after the accident, Denson ordered that they be taken down as of April 2, he confirmed in an April 4 statement.

The renovation construction manager, a joint venture of contractors Brasfield & Gorrie and BLOC Global Services, said the probe is being conducted by the authority, design firms and others.

However, Denson said that the authority has hired structural engineer Barter & Associates, Mobile, Ala., for an "independent" review.

He said that "certain" contractors, which he did not name, and other members of the project team "had serious concerns about the safety of the [flight-display cabinets], and the risks they presented before the accident. We do not have a full understanding of what was done or considered to address these concerns."

According to Denson, "no one affiliated with the authority was aware of these concerns before the accident."

He ordered the CM, as well as team members KPS Group, Fish Construction and Monumental Contracting Service, to "address these matters directly and promptly."

In a statement from the CM, the firms said "we have concluded that the cabinet that fell was put in place in early January 2013 and it was designed and installed to be freestanding. Brasfield & Gorrie/BLOC Global Services Group is looking into all the information we have and our team members have that can help determine why the cabinet fell over."

In a letter to airport officials, Gray Plosser, president of KPS Group, said the firm was asked to develop recommended modifications to ensure the remaining monitors are safe. LBYD Engineering was hired to develop specific design modifications, he says.

Plosser recommended the free-standing displays be moved close to the wall and attached for added support. He says the firm is preparing design documents for constructibility review. The authority confirmed on April 4 that the recommended modifications have been completed.

"We must ensure that every step in every project is fully reviewed and completed, and that transparent inspection processes take place," said the authority statement.

A spokesperson for Mayor William Bell's office declined to respond to ENR questions, but Steven Stine, an assistant city attorney, says the city was not responsible for inspecting the monitors.

"We understand that the object that fell is a movable cabinet [that] rests on the floor and is designed like entertainment centers that are found in many homes and businesses," he said. "The building code does not contemplate, and the city does not inspect, furniture or cabinetry like this."

Airport design experts disagree.

"This is a public safety issue, and the airport should have requirements that go beyond the code, if necessary, to make sure signs are structurally sound," says William Fife, a retired AECOM aviation vice president and a former manager at JFK Airport in New York City.

Renovation of an additional airport concourse is set to get under way shortly.

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