Cradles will fall: W&L deck collapse highlights dangers

Last weekend, a party at Washington & Lee University ended in disaster.

What Washington & Lee University officials are calling a “close call” should be a wake-up one for UVA students planning to celebrate this weekend. During a W&L party in Lexington last weekend, a deck on a house with as many as 80 people on it collapsed, injuring nearly 30 students and sending 22 of them to the hospital. Luckily, no one was seriously injured in the May 14 incident.

According to the North American Deck and Railing Association, that's not always the case. Since 2000, there have been more than 30 deck collapse fatalities, and 75 percent of the people on collapsing decks get injured or killed. What’s more, there are 40 million decks in the country more than 20 years old.

"Every weekend, somewhere in the country, a deck collapses or someone falls through a deck rail," says Joe Loferski, a Virginia Tech professor of wood science who has been researching the causes of deck collapses since 2000.

A nearly identical disaster occurred during a weekend party at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008, when a second-story deck collapsed and injured 20. And in 2003, the deadliest collapse happened in the north side Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park when a third-floor wooden balcony collapsed during a party–- attended mostly by young people in their early 20s–- and took out the second and first-floor balconies on the way down. Thirteen people were killed and 57 injured. Initially, overcrowding was to blame, but later it was discovered that the balconies had violated a number of construction codes.

However, such incidents apparently haven’t been enough to improve deck safety awareness.

“We found many poorly maintained decks,” says Charlottesville building inspector Tom Elliott, whose department spent a week earlier this month offering free deck inspections as part of the City’s Building Safety Week.

“People think that treated wood will last forever and don’t maintain them," says Elliott. "The wood does deteriorate–- and especially the fasteners.”

Among the danger signs Elliott observed were decks fastened to the house only with nails, which can work their way out over time, and decks with no flashing between house and the deck, which can cause the house framing to rot.

“The attachment to the house is critical,” says Elliott. “If nails are the only attachment, then additional lag screws or thru bolts need to be installed.”

"It's usually the connection, not the wood, that fails," says Loferski. "Ninety percent of decks rely on their connection to the house for their stability."

Loferski points out that free-standing decks are much stronger and safer, but they are not common in the construction industry. Indeed, according to building inspectors who examined the W&L collapse, the bolts that were supposed to have secured the deck to the side of the house had been attached merely to the wood siding and sheathing, not to the solid 6-inch framing beam behind them.

Elliott says that decks built on a home's shady side will fail quicker, and that guardrails that have been notched, or cut away, at their base or secured with nails are particularly weak.

“A woman was killed in Charlottesville in 2003 after falling through a deck guardrail system that had not been maintained properly,” says Elliott.

Since the 2003 tragedy, Elliott says, the City has been incorporating findings from Loferski's decade-long Virginia Tech study on deck collapses into code requirements for new deck construction. Loferski found that most of the common methods of guardrail construction methods failed his group's safety tests.

“Contractors now understand what we require,” says Elliott, “but it took about five years.”

To learn more, Loferski recommends that people read guidelines from the American Wood Council, which are based on his findings, or pick up a copy of his book, Manual for the Inspection of Residential Wood Decks and Balconies.

Sadly, many deck/balcony collapses happen during joyous occasions, as friends and family gather to celebrate. Indeed, one of the more tragic local collapses involved the failure of a Jefferson-designed "propped cantilever" balcony amid graduation festivities on the UVA Lawn.

On the morning of May 18, 1997, just ten minutes before the ceremony was to begin, the balcony attached to Pavilion I collapsed and ended up "pancake style" on the sidewalk below, according to a rescue worker.

According to news reports at the time, graduation went on uninterrupted as doctors from the crowd were called in, and rescue workers struggled to access the Lawn. One of the injured was a 12-year old girl with broken arms, legs, and ankles. Remarkably, no one was trapped under the balcony structure. But when the carnage was tallied, a graduate's grandmother had died, and 18 others were injured.

Later, it was determined that one of the four iron rods that supported the balcony from the roof rafters, a Jeffersonian innovation that had held for 175-years, was almost completely corroded where it connected with the balconies’ face beam.

The balcony received a visual inspection in 1994, under the direction of J. Murray Howard, the curator and architect for the Academical Village at the time. Unfortunately, a close look at the structure wasn’t enough to detect the corroding wrought iron rod beneath the surface of the wood.

The family of Mary Brashear, the 73-year old woman killed in the accident, sued Howard, the State of Virginia, and the architectural firm that conducted the 1994 inspection. In May 2000, the family was awarded $790,000. Previously, 13 other claims were settled for $601,500. Howard left his post at the University in 2002, and five years later, at age 60, Howard died of unknown causes at his home in Albemarle County.

The balcony was eventually restored, says the University's chief facilities officer, Don Sundgren, but the iron rods and fasteners on all seven pavilion balconies were replaced with modern materials that better resist corrosion.

Today, Sundgren says the balconies are inspected annually by licensed structural engineers.

“Adjustments are made if required,” he says. “Also, the loads on the balconies, determined primarily by number of people, are restricted.”

Read more on: deck safetyuva lawn


This article is like so many others that give a bunch of numbers, and then try to imply conclusions that don't exist. This is because the author realizes that numbers, especially big numbers scare people. So lets connect the dots here and see what we really find about deck safety.

From the article:
1) There are > 40,000,000 decks over 20 years old in the USA. Given the housing boom in the 1990 and 2000s you can certainly speculate that this number is much higher when you include all decks, like the fatality numbers seem to. But we will use this number in our math.
2) since 2000 there have only been 30 deck collapse fatalities

So 3 people die per year due to deck collapses
Lets put that into perspective:
> 20,000 people die each year due to complications from the flu
> 14,900 people die each year in falls
> 120 people die each year in airplane crashes
> 90 people die each year due to lightning strikes
> 5 people die each year from anthrax poisoning
> 3 people die in deck collapses each year


So you have less then a 0.0000075% chance of dying from a deck collapse each year. Extrapolating that one step further, if we multiply that by a life expentancy of 75 years (1-(1-.0000075)^75) means i have a 0.00056% chance of dying of a deck collapse in my life. I for one am willing to take that risk and don't think this "problem" needs to be at the top of our priority list.

Why do you provide gratuitous details of Murray Howard's death? Please, how is this related to the story?

I've always thought this was pretty much common sense. You don't walk out onto any elevated deck when there's already 80 people on it. I guess the last 60 people walking out onto the deck had no common sense? Or is this way too simple to figure out when alcohol is involved?

Well, I don't think that there are 40 million relevant decks aged 20 years+. There are 300 million people in the US. Let's assume 100 million dwellings. Let's assume that 60 million are aged 20+ years. Let's assume that 30 million have decks of any kind. Most of those are about 5 feet off the ground. Someone might get hurt if the deck or rails collapse, but they're not going to get seriously injured. So the number of relevant decks are probably fewer than 1 million.

So if you have one of those decks, then you should maintain it properly and get it inspected before you allow a lot of raucous young people on it.

.....and you have a 50/50 chance of dying in your sleep...I agree with Logan.

Could the deck have been built by an undocumented alien?

Elevated decks will be declared illegal on 5/24/10, unless built by an illegal Mexican alien who crossed the border in Arizona.

El Presidente Calderon will address the joint session of Virginian legislatures as he declares Virginia an unsafe haven for his fleeing population as they are rounded up for contributing to the rise in undocumented deck collapses as well as vehicular homicide in the Commonwealth.

quote: "...investigate why there has suddenly been this outbreak of rampant deck-collapsing accross America."

WTF? What needs investigating? It's so simple a 4th grader can figure it out. You take a 12 foot by 16 foot wooden deck and place 2 or 3 kegs of beer and 80 people on it.... it's going to collapse.

GSOE- Blame it on the beer kegs...........and George Bush.

@ Hmmm:

From the Simpson Strong-Tie Deck Framing Connection Guide: "...While decks are required to meet certain code standards and
load capacities, it’s estimated that of the 40 million existing
decks, only half are code compliant ââ?¬â?? leaving 20 million
decks that need to be rebuilt or retrofitted..."

Statistically, one's chances of being killed in a deck accident are ridiculously low. But, decks ARE considered the most dangerous part of the home, when you consider the risk of your home sitting, doing "nothing" (except doing its Newton's Law thing of resisting forces), and killing you.

Logan's pretty much right on the money, but we like to look at low-hanging fruit too much instead of the whole tree. E.g. we like to encourage pregnant women to not eat cold cuts when we know that their male partner presents far more risk on average to themselves or their fetus than a slice of delicious bologna?/baloney?

From the internet, within a 17 year period, 37 people were crushed to death by vending machines, and 2 people were electrocuted to death by vending machines, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Compared to this, going out on a deck is safe!

Congress needs to immediately hold an emergency session tomorrow morning, Sunday, May 23, 2010, and investigate why there has suddenly been this outbreak of rampant deck-collapsing accross America.