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Authority director tries to calm public's fears after convention center fatality

Saturday, February 16, 2002

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There's never a good time for a construction site accident, but when a fatality occurs less than two weeks before a building is set to have its grand opening, it's the worst kind of public relations.

Dave Clapper of Xitech Corp. installs cables yesterday in the secondary hall of the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Workers are putting finishing touches on the space, which will be the site of the recreational vehicle show that starts Feb. 23. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

That fact hasn't been lost on Sports & Exhibition Authority Director Stephen Leeper, who plans to open the first section of the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center in just a week -- for the annual recreational vehicle show that starts Feb. 23.

So Leeper took pains yesterday to assure Pittsburgh-area residents that the $332 million building is safe. He said Tuesday's construction accident, in which one ironworker was killed and two others injured, won't delay the RV show and two other popular events right behind it, the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show starting March 8 and the annual auto show two weeks later.

"This building is structurally sound from a design standpoint," said Leeper, who's spent a lot of time recently walking around the nearly completed first phase of the structure. That's the western section, which borders Fort Duquesne Boulevard and Garrison Place.

"This is a safe building and one the public will want to see," with its sloping, cable-stayed roof made of galvanized steel, its large skylights and walls of glass and its key location along the Allegheny River.

"I understand that [Tuesday's accident] makes the public question a building, but there is no reason to do so," he said.

Leeper said the area where the accident occurred is considered "phase three" of the overall project, located in the extreme eastern part of the construction site. That section is about two football fields away from the completed "phase one" section, where the public shows will be held.

Steel truss erection was in the early stages Tuesday in the eastern section of the construction site, when the truss fell, crushing one worker and leaving two others dangling 100 feet above the ground, saved by their safety harnesses.

 
 

Graphic: Safety measures for iornworkers

Graphic: What happened

   
 

The truss that collapsed "had nothing to do with the opening of phase one," he said. The public shows will be staged in the part of the building that is "several hundred yards away from the collapse."

The shows will be in two large exhibit halls on the ground floor and a third exhibit hall on the second floor. The three halls will total 120,000 square feet of exhibit space. Workers yesterday were finishing the painting in the exhibit halls.

Elements of the building that still may not be finished by the opening of the RV show are some bathrooms, food concession stands, the painting of some exhibit hall ceilings and some interior duct work for utilities.

Leeper spoke during and after a videotaping of KD/PG Sunday Edition, which will be broadcast tomorrow at 11 a.m. on KDKA-TV.

Leeper said he resented some suggestions he'd heard that the collapse of the truss may have been caused by workers being pressured to complete phase one of the project on time. That idea is completely false, he said.

In all, there will be 15 trusses erected on 15 column lines at the center, which will form the interior support for the building.

The collapse occurred on the 13th truss. Leeper said it had nothing to do with a problem last fall with the caissons, or underground concrete-and-steel columns, that are below trusses 9 and 10. Column lines 9 and 10 are on either side of 10th Street.

At that time, the pounding of pile drivers as part of construction of a wall along 10th Street may have caused some of the underground caissons to be knocked slightly out of line, and they had to be straightened.

He said federal and local investigators were still digging into the cause for the truss collapse and were looking closely at the anchor points where the above-ground steel trusses were connected to the underground caissons by means of a series of large bolts.

"The focus [of the probe] has been that there was a failure in the base connection, where [the truss was] connected to the caisson," he said. "The bolts had been stripped [during the collapse]. That may be the one area they focus on."

The trusses, which are aligned north-south, are also connected horizontally on the second, third and fourth levels of the building by means of crosspieces running east-west.

Paul Corsi of Moon, the worker who died, was working on one of the horizontal cross beams on the third level between the 12th and 13th vertical truss, Leeper said. He was tethered via safety harness to the 13th truss, as required by on-site safety procedures, but when it fell, it brought Corsi down with it.

The first eight trusses have been anchored to the caissons, to the crosspieces and to the cable-stayed roof, Leeper said.

Trusses 9, 10, 11 and 12 haven't been connected to the roof cables yet, he said. Those trusses are being rechecked to make sure they are properly constructed and then will be connected to the cables.

It isn't known yet when work will resume on the 13th truss or when the last two, 14 and 15, will be erected. The entire convention center, which will contain 330,000 square feet of exhibit space and 50 meeting rooms, isn't expected to be done until spring of 2003.



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