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DA: No proof ductwork installation at Shaler school was 'reckless'

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 9:48 a.m.
Allegheny County District Attorney's Office
This photo provided by the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office shows the aftermath of a duct collapse at Shaler Area Elementary School in April 2012.
Bethany Hofstetter | Pine Creek Journal
The Shaler Area Elementary School cafeteria was renovated in the summer of 2012 after an air duct fell during the fourth-graders' lunch period. The cafeteria now features a new ductwork system, a dropped ceiling and a new coat of paint.

Several entities that worked on the 2007 renovation at Shaler Area Elementary School failed to do their jobs appropriately, but investigators found no proof that reckless behavior caused a metal ventilation duct to collapse inside the school's cafeteria last year, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said on Wednesday.

“I'm looking for intentional conduct. I'm looking for reckless conduct. I'm looking for someone who didn't care,” Zappala said. “I did not find the reckless intent to make it appropriate to file criminal charges.”

Thirteen people, including eight students, were injured April 3, 2012, when part of the 71½-foot, 2,254-pound HVAC duct fell as more than 300 students ate lunch below. Seven students and two adults were hospitalized with injuries. Paramedics treated two adults and one child at the school.

Jane Fisher is vice president of the Shaler Area High School Parent Teacher Organization. Her daughter was inside the elementary school but not in the cafeteria when the duct fell. She said she was not disappointed Zappala decided against filing criminal charges.

“Accidents happen,” she said.

The duct fell in part because employees at D&G Mechanical of West Middlesex in Mercer County improperly installed the Ductmate Industries hanging system, Zappala said. In addition, HVAC contractor Quality Mechanical Systems, general contractor Hudson Construction, architect Valentour, English, Bodnar & Howell, and engineering firm Dodson Engineering failed to properly inspect the duct, he said.

“That system is used in a lot of different applications across the United States,” said Rick Soxman, owner of Quality Mechanical Services in Verona.

Officials at the other companies did not return multiple calls.

Those involved with the renovation project pointed fingers at each other and wouldn't provide information, Zappala said.

Zappala in June 2012 said he would take the investigation to a county grand jury because he believed it was a criminal matter, but on Wednesday, he said he couldn't justify using a grand jury because of the cost to taxpayers.

“The main issue was the safety of the kids and the well-being of the families. Had a life been taken, we would have taken a different course,” Zappala said. “Thank goodness no life was lost. It really was a miracle.”

Of the families of those injured, he said, “They have remedies on the civil side.”

The parents of two children injured when the duct collapsed sued companies associated with the renovation. Michelle and Ralf Birgelen of Etna filed a complaint in May 2012 against Quality Mechanical Services and D&G Mechanical on behalf of their daughter Mina, who broke her spine as a result of the duct collapse, and John and Terri McGee of Hampton filed a complaint against Quality Mechanical Services, D&G Mechanical and Ductmate Industries on behalf of their son Jacob, who broke his collar bone and sustained a concussion.

Edward Balzarini Jr., the attorney representing the Birgelens, declined to comment. Laura Gutnick, the attorney representing the McGees, did not return calls. The Birgelen family did not return messages. Terri McGee declined to comment.

Both suits claim D&G improperly and negligently installed the ductwork and seek monetary damages. The statute of limitations for others to file a lawsuit will expire in April.

The duct that fell was installed as part of a $5.4 million project to renovate the former middle school building on Scott Avenue into an elementary school in 2007 and 2008. Jim Fisher, vice president of the Shaler Area school board, said funding limitations often mean oversight of construction projects gets shortchanged.

“This is a situation where corners were cut. Was it criminal? It depends on which side of the fence you're on. They didn't do it on purpose, but it did happen,” Fisher said. “You can bet that for me and everyone else on the board, if there is another project, there is going to be oversight out the wazoo so this doesn't happen” again.

After the collapse, the district had its buildings inspected and hired new engineers and contractors to design and install a new HVAC system, Superintendent Wes Shipley said. In the cafeteria, the district got rid of the exposed, industrial-style air ducts and used lighter sheet-metal ducts covered by a dropped ceiling. The school reopened the cafeteria in September.

“The safety and security of our students and staff is our first priority, and our thoughts continue to go out to those that were traumatized and injured when the ductwork collapsed,” Shipley said.

Staff writer Bethany Hofstetter contributed to this report. Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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