Collapses of School Bleachers Belie Company’s Denial of Prior Incidents

By Peter Schmidt — May 10, 1989 6 min read

Bleachers sold by Interkal Inc. of Kalamazoo, Mich., have collapsed in at least two schools in the last eight months and in at least eight schools in the last seven years, officials of the affected schools confirmed last week.

The reports indicate that the nationally publicized collapse of bleachers at Maurice J. McDonough High School in Charles County, Md., last September was not an isolated occurrance, as it was described by the company.

Altogether, more than 300 students have been involved in the known mishaps and at least 210 have been hurt, although almost all of the injuries suffered have been minor.

The most recent known collapse occurred April 15 during a 10th-grade orientation at East Burke High School in Burke County, N.C., when bleachers folded under the weight of 15 people, sending nine to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries, school officials said.

About two weeks after last fall’s incident in Charles County, Md., three unoccupied bleacher seats collapsed at Edgewood High School in Harford County, Md., a district spokesman there said.

The collapse of a section of bleachers during a back-to-school program at Charles County’s McDonough High School on Sept. 9 sent 83 students to local hospitals for treatment of injuries.

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office blamed the McDonough collapse, in part, on the failure of school employees to install removable guardrails that would have enabled them to see that the bleachers were misaligned.

Charles County has since filed an appeal of the agency’s finding, which will be heard May 12. Literature sent by Interkal officials to Charles County describes the guard rails as “safety accessories.”

Soon after the McDonough incident, Interkal’s president, Francis Hubbel, who took control of the company in 1981, told Education Week that his company had installed its products “in all 50 states” and that he knew of no similar failure of Interkal equipment.

However, officials in several school districts around the country said they had experienced similar structural failures of bleachers manufactured by Interkal or by the Vecta Group, a company whose bleacher product line was purchased by Interkal during the early 1970’s.

Mr. Hubbel last week refused comment on his company or any of the other bleacher collapses.

In the interview soon after the Charles County collapse, the president said his company had recommended an annual maintenance schedule for the bleachers to its customers in two separate mailings in 1979 and 1985. The letters, he said, indicated that the bleachers “must be given very close care.”

Mr. Hubbel 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 of many of the units was shoddy.

“What we saw was particular disregard for the understructure of the bleacher,” he said.

However, almost all of the school districts interviewed blamed their bleacher accidents in part on design flaws that leave the bleachers vulnerable to collapse even under normal use.

In Burke County, N.C., the site of the most recent accident, school officials had good reason to maintain their Vecta-manufactured, Interkal-distributed bleachers carefully. Vecta bleachers had collapsed during a cheerleading competition at the county’s Freedom High School six years before.

Superintendent of Schools Carlos D. Hicks said his district had been following the company’s 1985 letter and inspecting the seating “bleacher by bleacher” every time the bleachers were opened in the last four years. “But they collapsed anyways,” he said.

“The real consternation for us is that it was not weight that collapsed these bleachers,” Mr. Hicks added. “There were only 15 people on them when they collapsed.”

An accurate tally of school bleacher collapses around the country does not exist because no federal agency or national organization monitors school-bleacher safety.

Jack Edan, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Division, said the regulation of school bleachers is under the jurisdiction of the states.

Brice B. Durbin, a spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said his organization regulates interscholastic activities but does not involve itself with their spectators.

“We don’t have any standards, nor is it within our jurisdiction, as to how they sit, or where they sit,” he said.

John M. Dolezal is general manager of the National School Supply and Equipment Association, an organization that represents manufacturers and distributors of school products, including bleachers. According to Mr. Dolezal, the two bleacher manufacturers his organization represents said the Charles County accident was the only school bleacher collapse they were aware of in recent memory.

But mishaps involving Interkal bleachers have occurred in at least four districts besides Burke County in recent years:

In Richmond County, N.C., the bleachers at Richmond High School collapsed in the autumn of 1985, causing about 15 students who were attending a morning pep rally to fall to the ground. Several of the students were hospitalized.

M. Douglas James, superintendent of Richmond County Schools, said the collapse occurred three weeks after he had received a notice from Interkal that the bleachers might collapse if not maintained properly.

Mr. James said engineers determined that the accident occurred because the system, as designed by the company and supplied to the school, had an inadequate failsafe mechanism holding part of the underframe in place.

Interkal responded to the accident, he said, by recording the names and addresses of all of the students who were injured and by supplying the school with a new failsafe mechanism for its bleachers. The school installed the mechanism and continues to use the bleachers, inspecting them frequently.

At South Tahoe High School in the Lake Tahoe Unified School District of California, a section of Vecta Group bleachers consisting of six rows, each 20 feet long, collapsed on one side during a 1984 basketball game, causing about 20 students to slide down into a pile, while the rest jumped to safety in the moderately-filled stands. No one was seriously injured.

Stephen G. Morales, operations manager for the district, said the 12-year-old bleachers’ structural allignment had been compromised by the failure of mechanisms that kept their upright supports in place.

“My feeling was that it was a design problem,” Mr. Morales said. “The materials used in the bleacher itself just weren’t very durable. We had had considerable maintenance done on these bleachers the August prior.”

At Parkway South High School in the Parkway school district near St. Louis, Mo., a 10-year-old section of bleachers purchased from Interkal collapsed during a 1985 pep rally, sending about 150 students and teachers tumbling to the ground. About 50 students were treated for minor injuries at the scene; the worst injury suffered was a broken ankle.

At North Caroline High School in Caroline County, Md., a section of Vecta bleachers provided by Interkal collapsed on one side at a pep rally in November 1982, causing several students to slide, without injury, into a pile on the floor.

Robert Allan Gorsuch, assistant superintendent for administration for the Caroline County public schools, said the district’s architect-engineer blamed the accident on flaws in the bleachers’ design, saying the underframe was too light for its intended use and was unable to stay aligned on its rollers.

None of the accidents in the four districts resulted in the filing of lawsuits on behalf of students, district officials said.

Mr. Dolezal said his school-equipment association is considering issuing a statement warning schools to have their bleachers installed and inspected frequently by certified workers. The project has gotten entangled, however, in legal questions over the statement’s wording, he said.

“Many times, if you make a statement that people should be doing such and such to make something safer ... that can come back to bite you,” Mr. Dolezal said.

Mr. Morales said he views bleachers as flawed in their design if they cannot be put up and taken down by students, as is a frequent practice in schools. “Schools are real hard on equipment,” he said. “There is no one who is harder on equipment than kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 1989 edition of Education Week as Collapses of School Bleachers Belie Company’s Denial of Prior Incidents