No Criminal Charges in Pennsylvania School Duct Crash

By JOE MANDAK | September 4, 2013

A Pennsylvania prosecutor said Wednesday that he found no criminally reckless behavior related to the collapse of heating and air conditioning ducts in a Pittsburgh-area school cafeteria last year.

As a result, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said he won’t file charges in the April 3, 2012, collapse at Shaler Area Elementary School.

Eight children and six adults were hurt, and all but three were treated at or briefly admitted to Pittsburgh hospitals. Zappala said attorneys for some of the injured children have said their clients continue to have “physical and psychological problems, a couple of them for the rest of their lives.”

Most of the 71-foot, L-shaped duct system – some of it 40 inches in diameter and weighing a total of more than 2,200 pounds – collapsed onto picnic-style cafeteria tables when a metal cable support system failed, Zappala said. The cable system, manufactured by Ductmate Industries Inc., wasn’t specified for use by the architect who designed the school, which opened in 2007, but was a satisfactory substitute according to industry standards, Zappala said.

A woman who answered the phone at Ductmate’s sales office in Charleroi said the company has no immediate comment.

Zappala said that it appears the cable failed because it was used incorrectly but that he couldn’t determine that for sure because Ductmate’s product manual lists more stringent restrictions than a company-produced training video his investigators found on YouTube.

Officials with D & G Mechanical Inc., of West Middlesex, which installed he duct work, didn’t immediately return a call for comment. But Zappala said that company’s officials told him they had used the product on other buildings without incident.

In short, Ductmate’s manual said that its cable and fastener system shouldn’t be used on ducts more than 24 inches in diameter and that cables encircling the duct work shouldn’t protrude from a metal clasp at more than a 60-degree angle. Despite that, the Ductmate training video showed larger ductwork being supported by cables at a more severe angle, meaning the company’s own standards are “ambiguous,” Zappala said.

In order to bring criminal charges, Zappala said he would have had to prove someone purposely disregarded a known safety risk. He said the Ductmate supports cost about the same as those recommended by the architect, so he doesn’t believe D & G used them to save money or for some other irresponsible or reckless reason.

“I’m looking for intentional conduct, I’m looking for reckless conduct. I’m looking for someone who didn’t care,” Zappala said. He didn’t find any such thing.

Zappala predicted the various contractors, subcontractors and inspectors involved _ Zappala said there were more than 20 entities that played some role in the duct work’s installation _ will look to affix some blame as lawsuits are filed. So far, they’re blaming one another, he said.

School district officials issued a statement, which Zappala confirmed, that the duct work in the cafeteria has been completely redesigned and fastened to the building so it can’t fall. The district also changed similar duct work in two gymnasiums at its high school and continues to cooperate with Zappala’s investigation.

Zappala noted the school even added a drop ceiling so students in the cafeteria no longer see the exposed ducts.

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