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A consulting engineer hired by the owners of a downtown shopping mall concluded that rebar was in the wrong place and weakened a parking barrier that collapsed during a fatal accident last month. Engineer Richard Dethlefs also concluded that, even in its weakened state, the barrier meets applicable building codes and should be able to withstand 6,000 pounds of force.

He sums up his report with a cautionary sentence: "Although the panels appear to meet the strength requirements of the governing codes, it appears that vehicles are able to impart more than 6,000 pounds of force on the barriers."

Spokane attorney Steve Eugster almost immediately raised questions about the safety of the garage barriers. Eugster, who can summon a blizzard of subpoenas and Motions for Declaratory Relief faster than most of us can say "habeas corpus," is the local personification of the boy who cried wolf. Power players around Spokane tend to dismiss the former city councilman with a wave and an, "Oh, that Eugster," as he jumps into one issue after another.

So it was astonishing Monday when officials from the River Park Square Mall finally issued Dethlef's report on the April 8 parking garage death of a Pullman woman.

"They vindicated me on the steel," Eugster says.

Jo Savage, 62, had driven up from Pullman on that drizzly Saturday to shop and meet a friend for lunch. As she pulled into a parking slot on the pink level of the RPS garage, the right-front corner of her Subaru's bumper hit the vertical barrier. The barrier -- which extends nearly two feet beyond the end of the floor deck -- collapsed. The Subaru agonizingly tilted over the edge and fell five stories, landing on its top. Savage died several hours later.

Eugster wrote letters to Mayor Dennis Hession asking that the garage -- or at least parking along the outer wall -- be shut down pending inspection.

He was blown off.

Eugster was the first to point out that the rebar in the failed barrier was in the wrong place. In a preliminary report released Monday, Dethlefs, the engineer, agreed. Still, he notes that despite causing the barrier to be weaker, the panel would likely absorb a load of 6,000 pounds as called for by building codes.

Dethlefs recommends core samples be taken from barriers throughout the garage for strength testing.

RPS Chief Operations Officer Bob Smith, discussing the report with various media on Monday afternoon, emphasized that "the spandrel panels meet international building codes. We hope to give assurance to the city that the parking garage is safe."

Savage's death was the third instance of an RPS garage barrier failing, Eugster says. One, which was widely reported, occurred in 1991. He says a second occurred in 1999 and was not reported.

"They are saying everything is built to code and everything is fine. It looks like it's being set up to be swept under the rug in hopes that it never happens again," Eugster says.

He cautions against a semantic bait-and-switch: "We are not talking about complying with the codes. We are talking about a public facility used by thousands every week. Is it safe?"

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