For more than 10 years leading up to Blacksburg High School’s gym roof collapse, school administrators knew of significant structural problems inside the school and, particularly, the gym.
Three separate engineers hired by the school district warned director of facilities Dan Berenato that cracks and settling in the building’s foundation must be evaluated more closely or permanently fixed, according to engineering reports from 1999 to 2004.
One engineer noted the possibility of structural failure in the southwest corner of the gym, the same area where the gym roof first started to fall in February this year.
Berenato and the school district never fixed many of the gym’s problems and hired no other engineers after 2004.
Berenato, still facilities director, declined to comment for this article.
“I can’t tell you why,” Assistant Superintendent Walt Shannon said. “I didn’t make the decisions at the time. Whatever decisions were made at the time, it is what it is.”
Shannon was the district’s director of management services from 2001 to 2004. He now oversees facilities maintenance and regularly speaks to the school board, media and public regarding the damaged high school.
District and county officials are currently working on a funding plan for a new Blacksburg High as part of a $125 million capital spending plan.
More than 600 pages of engineers’ reports, letters to Berenato and e-mails show the district’s knowledge and concern of structural problems in Blacksburg High’s gym.
Blacksburg building official Cathy Cook first obtained the documents from the school district in May after she filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The Roanoke Times received the papers from the building office in mid-November after filing a FOIA request.
Though the bulk of foundation settlement, cracks and wall movement that the reports note occurred in the southwest corner of the gym building, there’s no proof that contributed to a main roof truss buckling and rolling off the building’s southwest steel column — almost directly above the long-time problem areas — and pulling down the rest of the roof Feb. 13.
Forcon International, which investigated the collapse for the school’s insurer, had not known of earlier engineers’ reports when it visited the wreckage from March until May, said Henry Moncure, the company’s main engineer for Blacksburg High. Moncure said he visited the cracked area in the girls locker room, in the lower level of the gym building’s southwest corner, and saw no fresh damage.
The roof fell because of weak steel, improper welding and poor support at the plate that joined the column and truss, combined with a heavy blanket of snow on the roof, according to Forcon’s reports.
Still, further investigation of the cracked areas or formal inspections of fixes made to cracks may have led to inquiry and discovery of the building’s many structural deficiencies, engineers and Cook said.
1999: Engineer suggests county place supports
The warnings began in March 1999 when Bob Oliver, vice president at Blacksburg’s Oliver, Webb, Pappas & Rhudy, looked at a cracked masonry wall in the girls locker room and adjacent stairwell.
Oliver guessed the cracks formed because the building’s foundation was giving way on top of unstable soil.
At Oliver’s suggestion, the district added a pipe column next to the wall to spread out the weight it would carry, and hoped the settling would stop.
Three months later, Oliver recommended to Berenato that the district place supports beneath the locker room foundation that would anchor deep in the ground and stop movement for good.
“I believe it’s time to consider a permanent solution to the problem,” Oliver wrote in an October 2000 letter, after noticing the locker room cracks had worsened.
No response from Berenato or school officials is included in the documents.
Oliver, now retired, declined to comment on his reports or the school system’s response. The firm he worked with is now OWPR Inc., which has assessed the school and tested the building’s structure since February’s collapse.
Tacy Newell-Foutz, former school board member and chairwoman from 2004 to 2005, said she never knew of engineering reports or structural problems at Blacksburg High during her term on the board, which began in 2000.
She added that she found it “disturbing” that engineering studies were necessary and had been done without the board’s knowledge.
Fred Morton, superintendent from 1997 to 2004 and now director of a Richmond governor’s school, couldn’t recall specific problems or decisions about the gym made during his tenure. He remembers general conversations about cracks and asking for more information, he said.
But Blacksburg High’s cracks may have taken a backseat to other districtwide challenges.
Aging buildings, land acquisitions, dozens of projects and differing policies in Christiansburg, Blacksburg and Montgomery County governments all competed for Morton’s attention, he said.
“The reality is that you’re trying to manage something that is very, very complex,” he said. “If anything was put out that it was a safety issue with students, we would work on it.”
2001: Second engineer finds more problems
The district hired another licensed engineer in 2001 to reassess cracks in the locker room and elsewhere in the gym.
Ronnie Trout of Pearisburg earned a few hundred dollars to spend one September day touring the school and visually assessing suspect walls, piers and beams.
Trout saw more problem areas, especially in the gym’s southwest corner, than what Oliver had seen, he wrote in a handwritten letter to Berenato.
Trout noticed cracks at the southwest and southeast columns that held up the roof’s two main trusses, and cracks on the walls nearby.
“Just how much more movement this area will take is hard to accurately estimate,” Trout wrote.
He noticed cracks where a concrete beam met a column above the southwest stairwell.
And the cracks in the girls locker room at the bottom of that stairwell had worsened, he wrote.
On the gym building’s west wall, Trout noted a crack that ran from roof to gym floor, out into the floor, and down the wall in the girls locker room below, only interrupted by a concrete band at gym-floor level.
“The concrete band is receiving stress loads that it probably wasn’t designed to handle,” Trout wrote. “To say what would happen if the concrete band gives way would only be a guess.”
Trout concluded the letter with his most emphatic warning:
“It looks to me that the settlement has slowed, but to say that it will stop moving before a structural failure occurs, I can’t.
“People can keep on patching the cracks and adding columns and adding steel plates on the walls as I have suggested, but … the only way to solve the problem is with piers and jacks, unless the building stops sinking soon.
“But will it?”
The school district did not respond, Trout said in a recent interview. It also never placed pier-and-jack supports to brace the building’s foundation and stop movement, like both Trout and Oliver had suggested.
2004: Engineer finds walls still moving
Greg Schultz, project engineer at Draper Aden Associates and then Olver Inc., picked up the Blacksburg High gym case soon after Trout’s assessment, according to the documents.
Schultz monitored floor settling and 14 cracks in the gym and main school building for a year, from January 2003 to January 2004, his reports say.
He saw 3 millimeters to 8 millimeters of horizontal movement and some vertical movement at three separate cracks: in the girls locker room corner, the gym’s western wall and at the masonry around the southwest steel column holding up the main roof truss.
Eight months into the testing, he wrote to Berenato about the girls locker room.
“The wall in question separating the shower room/gymnasium from the stairwell and exterior is overloaded along its entire length,” Schultz wrote in September 2003. “This wall, while showing signs of distress, does not, in my opinion, represent an immediate safety hazard.”
The engineer’s final report, in January 2004, says the cracks on the gym level might have expanded or contracted because of the weather.
After more investigation in the girls locker room on the lower level, Schultz wrote that he thought the cracking came from settlement issues, something “more than just a nuisance and could be structurally related.”
He recommended the school ask him to do more testing there to find a cause.
“When multiple firms have looked at a situation for years and they’re inconclusive, you either have to dig it up or tear down the building, and that’s not an option,” Assistant Superintendent Shannon said.
If school officials such as Berenato or Morton had asked the engineer to do more analysis of the gym’s southwest corner, as his letter suggested, Schultz said he may have torn apart the wall and done invasive testing.
Trout, the second engineer, said he would have suggested a similar next step.
“I figured that they should have had someone climb up there and look at the wall and the framework — see if something was going to slip off,” Trout said.
Because of a lack of invasive construction over the years, the school district never knew about weak steel and beams throughout the school.
Now, invasive testing must be done and many beams in the main school area must be fixed if the building is repaired and reoccupied. The gym was demolished in May.
After Schultz’s final letter, the district quit hiring engineers to evaluate the gym’s widening cracks, and instead asked custodians to “continually review areas of concern in our school buildings,” according to a school district statement.
No other records of formal crack monitoring exist after January 2004 — until 2010, when engineers came to the site hours before the roof gave way.
(Dec. 5, 2010)
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