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March 14, 2002 - Chicago Will Sue Over Scaffold Collapse

March 14, 2002 - Chicago Will Sue Over Scaffold Collapse

Chicago officials on Wednesday acknowledged a gap in the municipal building code that omits regulation of scaffolds as they pledged to take legal action against those responsible for last weekend's scaffold collapse at the John Hancock Center.

Meanwhile, the families of all three women killed in the accident filed lawsuits in Cook County Circuit Court against the manufacturer, assembler and operator of the scaffolding, as well as the owners of the Hancock. A judge immediately issued a protective order requiring the preservation of scaffold wreckage, inspection records and other potential evidence in the cases.

City Corporation Counsel Mara Georges said that because of the accident, in which parts of a scaffold broke off from the building and crushed two cars below, "a gap has been identified and, as a result, maybe there (will be) some amendments to the code."

A new permitting requirement would allow use of scaffolds only if the company operating the equipment "can demonstrate they are complying with all safety regulations and all appropriate manufacturers' specifications," she said.

In theory, a permitting process would allow city officials to identify the locations of scaffolds throughout the city and would allow inspections if necessary. However, city officials said it was too early to say exactly what an ordinance would mandate.

Also on Wednesday, city building officials said they have finished their investigation into the collapse, concluding that it was caused by the failure of the scaffold operator, AMS Architectural Technology Inc. of Denver, to meet the manufacturer's specification to secure the scaffold at the top of the building or at its base "when severe weather is forecast."

A Chicago police investigation to determine if there was any criminal activity connected to the accident should be completed soon, said police spokesman Pat Camden.

Determining the precise series of events that caused the scaffold to break apart during Saturday's high winds will be left to an inquiry by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA spokesman Gary Anderson said he did not know long the probe would take.

Georges said the city's suit is expected to seek as-yet undetermined penalties and cost reimbursement for the city's emergency response. It could seek to bar any liable parties from doing business in Chicago.

She declined to identify targets of the suit, expected to be filed "within about a week," pending completion of a Law Department review of the accident.

The rig was custom-made for the Hancock by Beeche Systems Inc. of Scotia, N.Y., assembled by Prime Staging Inc. of Bensenville, Ill., and operated by AMS under a contract to recaulk windows and clean the 33-year-old skyscraper's metal skin. The landmark tower is owned by Shorenstein Co. of San Francisco.

The victims' suits name all four companies.

One was filed by attorneys Robert Clifford and Thomas Demetrio on behalf of Melissa Cook and Jill Nelson, two of the women killed. A second filing was made on behalf of the third victim, Nanatta Cameron, by the law firm of Johnnie Cochran.

Both suits allege negligence by the four firms. They further allege that Shorenstein and AMS failed to secure the scaffolding against the danger of high winds.

The Cameron suit claims that Beeche is responsible for "inadequate welds to maintain structural integrity."

A scaffold made by Beeche that was involved in a fatal accident Jan. 2 on a bridge over San Francisco Bay appeared to have faulty welds, according to a preliminary analysis by California state investigators.

A representative of Shorenstein said the company does not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for Beeche could not be reached. And Bill Johnson, an attorney for Prime Staging, said he had not seen the suits and declined to comment.

A spokesman for AMS said the company operated the scaffold properly, but its design is flawed.

Demetrio said the suits were filed quickly to obtain a protective order so that evidence, which could be altered, disappear or become degraded by weather, is preserved.

The order "will allow us to have our own structural engineers and architects to examine the wreckage," Demetrio said.

Neither suit names the city as a defendant, though attorneys in both cases held out the possibility that it could be added.

Georges contended that the city is not liable in the accident.

Asked whether someone could argue that the city was at fault by failing to require permits, Georges replied, "Certainly we can sit here all day and speculate and say, `What if, what if.' I just don't know how useful an exercise that is."

Peggy Whittaker, one of eight people injured in the accident, remained in critical condition Wednesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

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