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Engineer: Hard Rock Hotel designer ignored calls for more steel supports

A move to use thinner decking could have worked if the builders had added extra supports, a structural engineer tells David Hammer.

NEW ORLEANS — A key supplier of materials for the Hard Rock Hotel construction project tried to warn the builders they needed more steel supports on the upper floors, but those supports were never added before the partially built 18-story high-rise collapsed, according to records obtained by WWL-TV.

The Oct. 12, 2019 collapse happened just eight days after the last batch of concrete was poured into metal decking on the rooftop. The concrete and steel pancaked, killing three workers, injuring dozens more and shutting down a major section of downtown New Orleans for more than a year.

Federal and local agencies have been investigating what went wrong ever since. A brief report from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, assessing violations of safety regulations is the only official findings of fault so far.

OSHA: Serious violations

The recently obtained records largely support the primary OSHA finding: that Heaslip Engineering, the firm that designed the hotel, committed serious violations related to the building's support structure of steel beams and columns on portions of its upper floors.

Heaslip has appealed the OSHA violations to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which assigned his case to a judge in Atlanta in March. James Heaslip, the project's engineer of record, also said in a prepared statement that the firm denies any wrongdoing.

“We have denied and are contesting all allegations of fault and negligence asserted in the legal proceedings related to the Hard Rock Hotel collapse, and we stand behind our company’s track record of designing projects that meet applicable engineering standards,” the statement said.

Injured workers, neighboring property owners and even the developers of the Hard Rock Hotel project are suing Heaslip and other contractors and consultants that formed the construction team. WWL-TV obtained tens of thousands of pages of construction plans, emails, meeting minutes and material specifications that were turned over as discovery evidence in those civil lawsuits. Such documents are generally kept secret unless they are used at trial.

No single failure, but several

Michael Bradbury, a California-based structural engineer, reviewed the records at the request of WWL-TV. Bradbury is an independent professional engineer and former municipal building plan reviewer who has served as an expert witness in similar civil cases but is not a part of the Hard Rock litigation.

Bradbury said no single engineering failure could have caused the collapse, but a change to the metal decking — the corrugated metal pans where concrete is poured to form the upper stories of the building — may have been a major contributing factor.

Emails between suppliers and building contractors show what happened when that change was made in January 2019.

On Jan. 18, 2019, New Millennium Building Systems, an Indiana-based supplier of metal decking and other construction materials, sent the Hard Rock project’s steel contractor a quote for 18-gauge metal decking. According to Bradbury, that heavier, sturdier grade would have been appropriate based on Heaslip’s plans to use steel beams spaced more than 26 feet apart to support the decking.

Thinner decking okay with more supports

Using heavier decking would cost more money, but the New Millennium project manager, Trent Fowler, wrote in an email Jan. 18, 2019, that the Hard Rock team could still switch to cheaper, lighter 22-gauge decking “if you are adding supports.”

Lower gauge metal is thicker than metal with a higher gauge.

William Bridges of steel contractor Hub Steel responded six days later. He wrote that the engineer of record for the Hard Rock project, James Heaslip, had made a “mistake” in requesting the heavier gauge.

“I spoke with the EOR (engineer of record) today about this and he sent a revised submittal over. His marks were made based on using an inaccurate load table chart. Sorry I did not catch this mistake sooner,” Bridges wrote.

The lighter deck should have been able to support heavy concrete and additional heavy loads, but only if the spans between beams didn’t exceed 23 feet, 7 inches, Bradbury said after reviewing New Millennium’s product manuals.

Bradbury also looked at the last set of structural plan revisions filed with the construction team on Oct. 11, 2019, the day before the collapse. Bradbury compared those most recent plans, which called for the lighter decking, with plans from June 2018 that were approved by the city of New Orleans permitting office and called for the heavier decking. He said the spans between support beams on both sets of plans were “identical.”

He said that suggests Heaslip never added more steel beams to support the lighter decking in the sections along North Rampart Street that collapsed.

“They've got some 26-foot spans, which the (lighter) deck wouldn't have been able to handle,” Bradbury said.

Bradbury also noted several places on Heaslip’s stamped plans where more support beams should have been used for a cantilevered balcony over Rampart Street. He also said Heaslip’s plans for the cantilevered balcony should have included steel rebar running through the concrete in the balcony and into the supported portion of the floor, to reinforce the concrete and keep it from shearing apart at the edge.

“He designed it, he should have known,” Bradbury said.

The documents also included written minutes from weekly meetings held by the prime contractor, Citadel Builders, with the 19 subcontractors working on the project. According to the minutes from Sept. 17, 2019, about three weeks before the collapse, Citadel’s lead manager, Tim Thornton, complained to Hub Steel that metal plates on the edges of the decking were too high.

More warning signs

Then on Sept. 24, 2019, a Hub Steel employee named Dean Maple said he would start cutting the metal plates “where the balconies are off due to out of plumb columns,” according to the minutes. A week later, just 12 days before the collapse, the minutes again noted that plates needed to be cut “where the balconies are off due to out of plumb columns.”

OSHA cited Hub Steel for failing to properly connect columns to beams at the 16th floor in accordance with the construction plans. Hub Steel managers, including Bridges, did not respond to requests for comment.

Bradbury said the issue with out-of-plumb columns was another potential warning sign of a structural weakness that was never properly questioned, either by construction crew leaders or by city inspectors.

A joint WWL-TV/Times-Picayune investigation in February 2020 found three city building inspectors failed to show up in-person to look at decking and rebar before the concrete slabs were poured on the upper floors, instead using photos taken by the construction team and passing them off as their own.

Bradbury has worked as a plan reviewer for the cities of Austin and Denver. He said he would always check the structural drawings to make sure each building was designed properly. But public records suggest the city of New Orleans never challenged the design of the Hard Rock’s steel-framed upper floors.

In response to a public records request, the city produced several documents in which plan reviewers questioned the building’s mechanical and electrical plans, as well as the design of its foundation. But the city’s plan reviewers did not question any of the Hard Rock’s plans for steel beams and columns to support the upper 10 floors.

“They're just letting the engineer do what they want,” he said. “It's the wild, wild West, and that's not the right way to do things.”

Former New Orleans Safety and Permits Director Jared Munster, who left his post in 2018, said the city’s plan reviewers do check to make sure structural designs are up to code. But he said the city has never had any engineers on its permitting staff to double-check the work of private engineers.

“During that planning review process, it is certainly part of that review to look at structural issues,” Munster said. “But it's not traditionally been the city's role to second guess the engineer.”

In the case of the metal decking on the Hard Rock, the city never even had that chance. The last set of plans approved by the city were dated June 2018. Those called for the sturdier 16-gauge metal decking. Those plans were revised to go with the thinner, lighter 22-gauge decking in February 2019, shortly after the emails between the construction team and New Millennium. The city confirmed it never received those revisions.

“There was no way that the plan review section of Safety and Permits could know what got changed in the field if nothing was ever presented to the city for review,” Munster said.

City spokeswoman LaTonya Norton said municipalities are not required to have structural engineers on staff to do detailed plan reviews. She said the Hard Rock plans were stamped by a structural engineer who was licensed in Louisiana and all of that was verified during the city's plan review process.

“It is incumbent on the professional of record to prepare plans that are code compliant and provide a standard of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the public,” she said.

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