City Meek on Garage Death

by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & picture is emerging that Jo Savage was a clear-headed, cautious driver, and the tragic plunge that took the Pullman woman to her death on April 8 may have more to do with the lack of structural integrity in a downtown Spokane parking garage than with her car or her driving.

Yet three weeks after her death, there is little information available about the status of engineering investigations at the River Park Square garage, and the city is being urged to take a more aggressive stance on potential hazards to public safety.

A Savage family spokesman says that family members faxed a letter to City Hall late Tuesday morning voicing concerns that her death was unnecessary and that there are potential structural problems with the garage that pose a continuing danger.

By last week, former City Councilman Steve Eugster had sent the first of two letters to Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession with similar concerns. The fact that one barrier failed, Eugster wrote, indicates "there are probably other walls in the garage which are in the same condition."

He urged Hession to close off parking on outward-facing stalls. "You have the power," Eugster wrote. "Indeed, you must exercise that power."

But Hession, City Council President Joe Shogan and Building Department Director Joe Wizner all were reluctant to step in, saying the city no longer owns the garage.

"On private property, what is our obligation and what is our authority?" Hession asks. "We have concerns about the safety of all our citizens, of course, but we cannot spend all our days going around the city looking for places that may or may not be safe. We have rules that require people to maintain certain standards."

And that's an area that could get sticky in a building that's been the epicenter of bitter lawsuits and countersuits spewing from the River Park Square development. Speculation continues about whether the Savage family will file a lawsuit alleging the garage structure failed to adequately protect Jo Savage.

In at least two documents -- the Walker Report of 1996 and the Jacobson Report of 2003 -- consulting engineers noted the age of the structure that had three more stories added during mall development. Some portions, such as the panel that broke away, were built nearly 30 years ago. The reports highlight several maintenance issues, but no one seems to have clear documentation about how many repairs were actually made. When the city was buying the garage from Spokane's Cowles family, several conditions were agreed to; whether repairs were agreed to and never actually made in unclear.

A former member of the Parking and Public Development Authority board (known as the PDA) says it may be impossible to find any documentation of inspections or repair. The PDA board was an exercise in the surreal more than in civic oversight, he says, since it was created with no budget. There was no staff to collect reports and no file folders or filing cabinets to place them in. So documents may exist only -- as his do -- as partial collections in binders in basements.

The city is not using its engineers to inspect structural elements in the wake of the April 8 fatal wall failure. Officials instead await results from consultants hired by the garage's insurer, Safeco.

The Inlander has been unable to find anyone at River Park Square LLC; its media relations firm, Rocky, Hill and Knowlton; or at Safeco who could say which engineering firm has been hired, what are they looking at or when their report is expected.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o why did the 62-year-old graphic designer from Pullman die in a horrifying plunge through an outer wall from the fifth level of the parking garage at River Park Square?

It doesn't seem to be the car or its driver, a Spokane police officer who reconstructed the accident, says.

"There appeared to be no mechanical failure; I don't think it was intentional; there were no drugs or alcohol; there were no criminal acts," Spokane Police Officer Glenn Bartlett says, ticking off potential causes he was able to eliminate during a two-week investigation.

Based on spotty surveillance video, eyewitness accounts and an examination of the car that showed little front-end impact damage, Bartlett concluded Savage was pulling into the parking slot pretty much as anybody would.

Somehow, the front wheels of her Subaru jumped atop the "parking block," a raised pad of concrete roughly six inches thick. At River Park Square, these parking blocks are precast concrete panels that start off on the floor and curve upward to form a vertical barrier. The barriers stand proud of the garage floor by about two feet.

Somehow, the vertical portion of the barrier cracked just where it leaves the floor deck and fell away like someone dropping a tailgate. Then the Subaru pitched forward through the sudden opening and fell four stories to the entrance ramp, landing on its roof and pinning Savage inside. She died about three hours later after firefighters worked strenuously to free her from the mangled car even as the concrete slab was dangling over their heads -- held to the garage by 11 strands of rebar.

The horrifying nature of the accident is "not something I want anybody to see again," Bartlett says.

His investigation was limited. "I looked at why she hit the wall. As to what [force] those walls are intended to take ... I'm not a structural engineer."

Some crashes, Bartlett says, have clear causes such as excessive speed or DUI. This one did not. The car had full-time all-wheel drive, the shift lever appeared to be in drive, the brakes and accelerator appeared to be working normally, Bartlett says.

"I started by ruling out what didn't cause it and worked backward from there," he says. Bartlett says there was early speculation about the Subaru being subject to recalls. He quashed the rumors, he says, by checking the vehicle identification number and determining it was never subject to any recall for defects.

"Then I looked at mechanical things and everything appeared to be fine," Bartlett says, adding that his investigation did not go to the extent of hiring a forensic engineer to dismantle the car and check items such as the accelerator cable more thoroughly. Other parties may wish to do that, he says.

The science and math he prefers to use to reach conclusions were frustratingly incomplete, Bartlett says. "The surveillance tapes were not really much help. There are gaps of one to three seconds where it switches to different cameras."

Ideally, the officer says, he can perform a time/distance calculation if he has a clear run of tape and a known tape speed. It's an equation that can be solved for the speed of the car.

"But with the cameras switching around, I wasn't able to determine that. I had to rely a lot on witness statements," Bartlett says. "What I prefer is having my scientific evidence backed up by witness statements."

There were several sets of witnesses in the vicinity, Bartlett says, who indicated Savage did not appear distracted and was driving at an appropriate speed as she pulled into the parking space.

In interviews early this week, however, several city officials repeated anecdotes that witnesses heard the sounds of tires screeching. The officials said this indicates to them that Savage's car was accelerating.

"Was the gas stuck? It almost seems she had to be still accelerating to do what she did," Building Department Director Wizner says. "But there's not a lot of room to get up such speed."

Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession, who was one of the first on the scene to try to rescue Savage, says, "A witness I talked to said this woman took off ... her tires were screeching as she hit the curb and ran through the wall."

There are signs the wheels on Savage's Subaru were spinning, Bartlett says, "But not like a huge burnoff." It is more likely a function of all-wheel drive, the slick concrete surface and echoes, he says.

"From all accounts, we are concluding there was no criminal action -- either reckless or negligent driving ... and that nobody pushed her over the edge.

"I would love to give the family a definitive answer. Unfortunately I can't," Bartlett says. "This is such a tragedy -- not only for the family but also for the citizens who witnessed things. What a horrific crash."

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