A Matter of Life & Death

It’s an engineer’s duty to keep you safe.
By Stanton Smith, P.E.

The first words in the Oklahoma licensure declaration for professional engineers are, “In order to safeguard life, health and property, and to promote the public welfare….”[1]  This comes into play often when I’m inspecting structures, but perhaps never so acutely as a recent investigation.

I was assigned to inspect the structure of a small church in south Oklahoma City after church members noticed sagging in the roof.  I visited the site on March 22, 2017.  Below is a photo of the church.  If you squint just right, you might see a slight dip in the center of the left part of the roof.

After spending several hours on site, I came to an unhappy conclusion about the building. In the church office, I told the pastor that they should no longer use the sanctuary.  Under normal circumstances, the insured would not have received results from the inspection, but the safety threat mandated an override of standard protocols.  Honestly, it is not a conversation I want to have with someone, and no one was happy when I left.

This part is important: regardless of whether it was a pleasant conversation or not, the position of engineer requires that the public be protected.

…the position of engineer requires that the public be protected.

Here is the “engineerish” part of the report:

The sanctuary is in a concatenating and accelerating failure mode, and is not safe.  The failure is ongoing and is not dependent upon a storm event….

The next day, I called the pastor again, which was also outside of our normal protocol, and reiterated, “Sometimes I warn people away from a building and they think that they can run back in and remove a few items as long as they are careful.  Please do not do that.”  The pastor assured me that they would not use the building.

Here is a photograph of the building on Tuesday, April 18, 2017 (27 days post-inspection)[2]:

The church collapsed at 2:00 p.m., a time when the building could easily have been occupied had the church members not been diligent in heeding the warning. The maximum wind speed recorded for that day at Will Rogers Airport was 21 mph (http://w2.weather.gov/climate/index.php?wfo=oun). Not a high wind. The airport is only three miles from the church.

Although the collapse is a terrible thing, I have never felt more rewarded in serving the public as an engineer.  Not because of my adherence to engineering principles, but because I may have saved someone’s life.

 

About the Expert: Stanton Smith joined Donan in 2013 as a forensic engineer based out of the firm’s Oklahoma City, Oklahoma office. He has 23 years of engineering experience, and has completed over 500 forensic investigations. Mr. Smith has worked in the following industries: mining; and residential, commercial, and industrial building inspection. His area of expertise is structural assessments, and his additional project capabilities include roof inspections and mechanical failures, among others.  Mr. Smith is a licensed professional engineer in Oklahoma and Texas. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering from Trinity University. Read his full professional profile here.

 

 

[1] State of Oklahoma, O.S. Title 59, Section 475.1, (Revised Effective August 24, 2012).

[2] Channel 4 News, http://kfor.com/2017/04/18/firefighters-roof-collapses-into-sanctuary-at-oklahoma-city-church/, (accessed 4/22/2017).

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