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Maryland School Officials Seeking Reason for Collapse of Bleachers

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Pomfret, Md.--The gymnasium at the Maurice J. McDonough High School here was sealed last week, as investigators pored over a crumpled section of bleachers to determine what caused a Sept. 9 collapse that injured more than 80 students.

Officials of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the sheriff's department of rural Charles County were among those trying to discover why the center portion of the 16-foot-high bleacher crumpled without warning as the school's junior class assembled for a back-to-school program.

In all, about 120 of the school's approximately 300 juniors were seated on the wood-and-metal risers to hear from Vice Principal Charles Gibson when portions of the 18-foot-long seats fell to the floor, leaving some students perched on the uppermost risers and others pinned under the debris.

"He said 'Hello' and the bleachers collapsed," said Principal Herman Murrell, who was addressing the senior class elsewhere in the building.

Officials of the Charles County school district said most of the students had already been seated and that there was no indication of unruly behavior when the collapse occurred. "It was not a pep rally," said one.

Within minutes of the accident, officials said, emergency medical teams from the nearby volunteer fire department arrived to assist the students, the most seriously injured of whom suffered broken limbs or back injuries.

Of those hurt, officials said, 83 were taken to hospitals in the suburbs of Washington. Four of the most seriously injured were evacuated by helicopter. Another 58 were treated at the school.

Officials said four students, including one whose back was injured in the fall, remained hospitalized last week. All were reported in good condition.

No 'Foul Play'

Because of the complexity of construction in the bleachers and the condition of the collapsed risers, "it's going to be several weeks before we have any indicators as to the cause," said Linda Dent-Brown, a spokesman for the 18,000-student district.

Although an anonymous phone call indicated that the underpinnings of the bleachers may have been vandalized, the sheriff's department last week ruled out "foul play" as the cause of the accident, said Sgt. Michael S. Gartland, a spokesman.

As insurance inspectors and engineers for a private consulting firm conducted investigations in the McDonough gymnasium last week, Superintendent of Schools John H. Bloom asked officials of six middle and four other high schools in the district not to make use of their bleachers until they can be inspected.

The 11-year-old equipment at McDonough was manufactured by Interkal, Inc., of Kalamazoo, Mich., the nation's second-largest manufacturer of school bleachers.

Bleachers in four of the schools also were manufactured by Interkal, officials said.

Interkal has installed its products in schools "in all 50 states," according to Francis Hubbel, the company's president. Mr. Hubbel said he knew of no similar failure of Interkal equipment.

In a letter to parents, Mr. Bloom also announced that the school district would appoint an independent, fact-finding panel to review the reports filed by the various investigators and to recommend changes to improve safety. "We pledge our full cooperation and support to find the cause of this accident," he wrote.

Maintenance Questioned

Among the questions that are likely to be asked is whether the bleachers were maintained in accordance with the recommendations of the manufacturer.

School officials said the bleachers last were repaired in January 1987, after a list of 14 deficiencies was found as part of a routine inspection in December of 1986.

The proposed repairs included tightening of bolts; some welding of the supports; a re-anchoring of the last two rows of seats and other "fairly typical repairs," officials said.

Ms. Dent-Brown said such inspections generally take place every other year.

Mr. Hubbel, who took control of Interkal in 1981, said the company had recommended an annual maintenance schedule for the bleachers to its customers in two separate mailings in 1979 and in 1985. The letters, he said, had indicated the bleachers "must be given very close care."

He said the company decided to mail the maintenance information when it discovered, while replacing older units similar to the one involved in the collapse, that upkeep on many of the units was shoddy.

"What we saw was particular disregard for the understructure of the bleacher," Mr. Hubbell said.

Joseph Lavorgna, executive director of supporting services for the Charles County district, said a check of records did not turn up any such notices from Interkal. "I'm not saying that they didn't send them, I'm saying we don't have them," he said.

Collapse called 'Severe'

Collapses such as the one in Charles County are relatively rare, said Ronald Garrison, field-service director for the National School Safety Center in Encino, Calif. Given the number of students injured, Mr. Garrison added, "that's a pretty severe collapse."

He speculated that an equipment failure, resulting from such causes as "metal fatigue, loose bolts, or some other structural problem" could have caused the collapse.

He said the center recommends that school districts develop a "risk-management plan" to head off such potential dangers. Using the bleacher collapse as an example, Mr. Garrison said a school custodian might maintain an "ongoing checklist" of such signs of stress as loose bolts.

The district has a long-term comprehensive maintenance plan, according to Mr. Lavorgna, but its "intent is not to get down into daily or weekly practices."

But "there are always things that can be added to it," Mr. Lavorgna said. "You can be sure that in the future we're going to look at this whole gym seating thing."

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