DA: No proof ductwork installation at Shaler school was 'reckless'
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pittsburgh region’s philanthropic sector at top of nation’s pack
- Film session: Long shots dotted Steelers’ passing game
- Islamic immigration in Europe
- Police encryption
- Enough Benghazi
- Dorfman: Barnes & Noble could beat bookstore blues, chief’s stock buy suggests
- In a heartbeat: ‘Kissing bug’ showing up in Pa.
- Fed slashes its emergency power options in crisis
- Distractions can help keep riders alert in self-driving cars, study finds
- Roundup: Locked out ATI workers to lose company-paid health benefits; more
- Pope Francis visits mosque in war-torn Central African Republic, calls for end to conflict