Maryland School Officials Seeking Reason For Collapse Of Bleachers
Last week, the gymnasium at Maurice J. McDonough High School was closed off after a collapse occurred during a back-to-school program, resulting in injuries to over 80 students. Multiple organizations, including the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the local sheriff’s department, are investigating the incident to determine the cause of the collapse.
During the incident, the center portion of the 16-foot-high bleachers suddenly crumpled while approximately 120 junior students were seated on the risers. This led to portions of the 18-foot-long seats falling to the floor, leaving some students stranded on the upper risers and others trapped under the debris. Principal Herman Murrell, who was addressing the senior class at the time, remarked that the bleachers collapsed as soon as Vice Principal Charles Gibson greeted the students.
The authorities stated that there were no signs of unruly behavior or any indication that the collapse was caused by misbehavior. Emergency medical teams arrived promptly after the accident to aid the injured students, with the most seriously affected individuals sustaining broken limbs or back injuries. Of the injured students, 83 were transported to suburban Washington hospitals, and four of them were airlifted due to the severity of their injuries. Another 58 students received treatment at the school, and as of last week, four students remained in the hospital in stable condition.
While investigators investigate the cause of the collapse, officials have stated that it may take several weeks to determine the exact reason. Although an anonymous phone call implied that the bleachers may have been tampered with, the sheriff’s department ruled out "foul play" following their investigation. As a precautionary measure, Superintendent of Schools John H. Bloom requested that other schools in the district refrain from using their bleachers until they can be inspected.
The bleachers in McDonough gymnasium were manufactured by Interkal, Inc., based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This company is one of the largest manufacturers of school bleachers in the United States and has installed their products in schools across all 50 states. Interkal’s president, Francis Hubbel, stated that they were not aware of any similar failures with their equipment. Nevertheless, Mr. Bloom assured parents that an independent panel would be established to review the investigation reports and suggest safety improvements.
One aspect that will be scrutinized is the maintenance of the bleachers based on the manufacturer’s recommendations. School officials mentioned that the bleachers had undergone repairs in January 1987 after an inspection revealed 14 deficiencies the previous December. These repairs included tightening bolts, welding supports, and re-anchoring the last two rows of seats, which were considered typical maintenance measures. Routine inspections typically occur every other year, according to Ms. Dent-Brown, a spokesperson for the school district.
Described as ‘Severe’
Instances of collapses like the one in Charles County are uncommon, according to Ronald Garrison, the field-service director for the National School Safety Center in Encino, California. Referring to the number of injured students, Mr. Garrison stated, "that is a considerably serious collapse." He hypothesized that the collapse could have been caused by equipment failure, potentially resulting from factors such as metal fatigue, loose bolts, or other structural issues.
Mr. Garrison recommended that school districts establish a "risk-management plan" to proactively address such potential dangers. Using the bleacher collapse as an example, he suggested that a school custodian could maintain an ongoing checklist of indicators of structural stress, such as loose bolts. According to Mr. Lavorgna, the district has a comprehensive long-term maintenance plan, although it does not specifically cover daily or weekly practices. However, he added that there are always opportunities to enhance the plan, particularly regarding the issue of gym seating.