KENNER, La. — Construction project managers on the new, billion-dollar terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport, also known as MSY, documented hundreds of concerns about fire safeguards not receiving special inspections in the months leading up to its 2019 opening. By the time planes started taking off that November, with millions of travelers passing through, construction records indicate some were raising questions about whether all the life safety safeguards called for in the design of the terminal were properly put in place or inspected.
A management consultant for the project hired by the New Orleans Aviation Board, Chris Spann, said he’s confident the work was done and that the terminal does not pose a risk to travelers, since the chief building official in Kenner and the Louisiana Fire Marshal signed off, the new MSY was granted a Certificate of Occupancy, clearing the way for the November 2019 opening.
Questions about fire proofing
However, sources close to the project who asked not to be identified said the questions about fire proofing and fire stopping remain, since special inspectors who were hired on behalf of the airport hit some turbulence during construction that prevented them from inspecting some of the life-safety measures included in the project they were supposed to sign off on.
Those safety measures are fire proofing and fire stops that are included in the design of a building to keep fire contained long enough for people to get out of a burning building safely. For example, when drainage pipes go through an elevated floor that is designed to keep fire at bay for approximately 2 hours, those pipes often have space around them that can act as a superhighway for smoke and flames if a fire starts down below.
Fire stopping seals the gaps using tested caulk or even covers designed and tested to ensure they can withstand the high heat of a fire. Underwriters Laboratories, or UL, is one of the well-respected companies that tests fire stops.
“When a fire is actively burning, it's going to create a lot of heat and pressure. So, you know, even the smallest void that's not protected with proper fire stopping almost acts like a blowtorch. You're going to have really hot flames, gas and smoke going through that opening under pressure so it rapidly spreads the fire and smoke beyond that original compartment,” said Bruce Johnson, a career state Fire Marshal, who now works with UL.
Specialized inspectors needed
Hundreds of emails and construction documents reviewed by WWL-TV indicate that would not be the only time special inspectors were shut out, leaving question marks for them and project managers instead of sign offs.
“You know, you have got to remember, at that time where it was a mad scramble, we're trying to get everything done, so everything is going fast and furious. So, there were times when there would be a situation where some of this fire stopping would be performed and the city of Kenner would be there and do their inspections,” Spann said.
Louisiana’s Uniform Construction Code and the International Building Code require property owners to hire a team of specialized inspectors to review all fireproofing and fire stopping on major construction projects, like airports.
However, the ultimate authority on construction projects in Kenner rests on the shoulders of the Chief Building Official, who, at the time of the new MSY construction, was James Mohamad.
“There was discussions in the planning aspects to have those people on site. But all that was just a means to the end to get the final jurisdictional approval from the city from the city of Kenner,” Spann said.
'A life and safety issue'
The codes do allow chief building officials to do the inspections themselves, whether they have specialized training and certifications in fire proofing and fire stopping or not.
Because fire stopping and fireproofing are specialties, experts in the industry say typically, the CBO would lean on the special inspectors hired by the owner to double check the life safety work on a big construction project before granting certificates of occupancy.
But again, in some cases at MSY, documents indicate that didn’t happen.
Frank Morris, President of Tri-State Consultants, a firm that specializes in construction codes and training inspectors, said the special inspection requirements are a part of the building code for an important reason.
“It's a life and safety issue,” Morris continued, “I mean, you literally can have a major fire in a facility that's built. And if the fire proofing, fire stops have not been properly inspected to the design, then a fire is going to go to the weakest link of a fire resistant-rated wall. And that would be the weakest link due to the fact that fire could get through the fire stop.”
The New Orleans Aviation Board had hired an engineering consulting firm called WSP to oversee the terminal construction on behalf of the airport. WSP hired the special inspections firm Terracon to sign off on the fire stopping and fire proofing, among other parts of the construction that also required specialized inspections.
3 non-conformance notices
WSP first notified the airport that the project managers had concerns about special inspectors being unable to access or sign off on fire stopping and fire proofing in late 2018 with a non-conformance notice or NCN. Spann said those NCN’s from WSP were a way to notify the airport that project managers felt there was an issue with the contractor’s work that wasn’t conforming with the terms of the contract.
The airport would then decide whether to take the issue up with the contractor, joint venture HGBM, to fix it.
“Their job was to watch the watch the construction and flag up anything. If they see something, that's not what they think is per the plans and specs, they flagged that up and bring it to the owner's attention,” Spann said.
WSP would later issue three NCN’s in March of 2019 identifying more than 200 issues of life-safety concern involving the fire proofing and firestopping work and inspections.
Many of those issues were ultimately documented as fixed or completed based on the signoffs from Kenner inspectors, not the special inspectors.
WSP include a disclaimer about it in its letter closing out the non-compliance. In the September 2019 letter, Program Manager Matt McCoy noted “good progress in sealing visible penetrations,” but went on to say, “These observations do not represent an inspection because no destructive testing occurred. It is also noted that the areas that have been closed in were not part of these observations."
'May or may not have been solved'
Architectural firm Leo Daly included similar language in its closeout letter that reads, “Leo A Daly is aware of Architectural issues on the Outstanding Items Log that are considered life safety issues which may or may not have been adequately resolved prior to 10/31/2019.”
When asked about it, Spann said he had “zero” concerns about the question marks on the project.
“The question marks, to my knowledge, were all not because there was an issue is because we weren't able to certify that there was not an issue,” Spann said.
Pictures obtained by WWL-TV appear to show pipes and penetrations poking through the ceiling of several areas of the terminal, according to sources, including areas over Transportation Security Administration baggage screening equipment.
The sources close to the project said the photos were taken in January 2022. Fire wraps used to fire stop similar penetrations in other parts of the airport that received special inspectors’ sign offs are not easily visible in the photos, however MSY Communications Director Erin Burns said many of the fire stops at the terminal were placed above the ceiling on the floor side.
Again, the airport points out that the city of Kenner and the Louisiana Fire Marshal both signed off on the project, granting it a Certificate of Occupancy in October 2019.
Since then, Mohamad has been charged in a federal bribery and tax evasion case. He’s accused of bribing a New Orleans inspector to get illegal permits for his air conditioning business. He’s expected to plead guilty March 8.
Another Kenner inspector who did much of the work at the airport has since been fired by the city of Kenner for unrelated reasons.
Spann said this when asked about the current status of the Kenner inspectors, “I mean, honestly, I don't have an opinion and I've got no choice but to have faith in the process and the people in the system at the time.”