NEW ORLEANS — This is Part Three of SHATTERED: The Seth Donaldson Story, an Eyewitness News documentary series.
Windows are designed to be transparent, but so often they hide their strength, or in Seth Donaldson’s case, their weakness.
In October, Seth Donaldson, 22, fell to his death through a 12th floor window at the Saratoga Lofts building, located at 212 Loyola Ave.
“There was a neighbor a floor down who said he heard beaucoup ruckus going on. He said before you know it, you heard bshheww! He said he waited like five minutes and went down and saw the dude dead on the balcony,” said an unidentified New Orleans Police Officer on body camera footage from the incident.
Two people in the room at the time Seth went out the window, who are old friends of his from North Carolina, said Seth had jumped out the window in a drug-induced dive.
We are not naming them because they are witnesses to a death, not criminal suspects.
The friends have a long history with Seth and his family, and Seth’s parents, Scott and Amy question whether those friends are telling the whole story about what happened.
But beyond the investigation, as problem-plagued or perfect as it might be, a larger question looms about Seth’s death: How could he have broken through a 12th floor window?
“I think if he were thrown up against the window accidentally there's a very big problem with the window. I think if Seth beat on the window for 20 minutes and then, you know, stood there and dove out there's a very big problem with the window,” Amy said.
Even the morning of Seth’s death, one of the friends in the room told police, “I honestly didn't know glass in a skyscraper was allowed to break that easily. It almost looked effortless, like as if it's the glass you see in a movie.”
The story of that window begins six decades back in time, in 1953, when the Saratoga Lofts building was constructed as the new headquarters for real estate giant Latter & Blum.
Architect Marcel Wisznia converted it to apartments in 2011. He once estimated in state records that the Saratoga conversion would cost $31.5 million. But there is nothing in city records to indicate that he changed out the building's original, 1950's windows.
He declined to comment on this story.
Ronnie Jones has worked at New Orleans Glass supervising all kinds of project—from installing doors to high rise windows—for 45 years.
We showed him video of the window remnants after Seth went through it.
“It almost absolutely had to be annealed, non-heat treated glass. I can't see how he can go through it otherwise,” Jones said.
Annealed glass is what is commonly called plate glass. Depending on the thickness of it, it is the easiest type of glass to break. It is the type of glass that shatters into large chunks and it can cut like a knife.
Jones said it is not out of the question for windows in taller buildings to have annealed glass in them, but in most new buildings, larger windows would have some sort of safety glass installed instead, such as heat-strengthened, laminated or in rare cases tempered glass.
“It broke like annealed glass and as old as that building is I would be really surprised if they had heat-strengthened glass in there. Although, if it would have been strengthened, it's very possible he wouldn't have gone through it because it's much stronger," Jones said. "And probably not much chance at all that he would have gone through it if it was tempered."
Each type of glass breaks differently. For example, tempered glass can break into tiny, gravel-like pieces that are not very sharp. But because of the way it’s made, tempered glass is very difficult to shatter when hit on its face. However, tempered glass does have weak points along its edges. When hit along those weak spots on the edges, it explodes.
The broken pieces of tempered glass are drastically less sharp than shards of annealed glass. So much so, that New Orleans Glass uses those broken pieces to pad the gravel in their parking lot.
Amy Donaldson has a lot of questions about the window Seth went out, including whether it satisfied safety codes.
There are three ways the International Building Code regulates windows: Impact, wind load and location.
In new buildings in New Orleans, from the ground up to 60 feet, windows must meet impact requirements because the city is in a hurricane zone.
Above 60 feet, the glass must be able to withstand a certain wind load, but impact requirements go away, and annealed glass can often meet that wind load.
The windows are also regulated by how high they are off the floor inside the building. Safety requirements are usually in place for windows less than 36 inches off the floor in apartment buildings.
“It's insane to think that we care about safety only up to the fifth floor,” Donaldson said.
Zach Smith, New Orleans’ Director of Safety and Permits division, said he thinks the Saratoga’s windows likely meet the safety requirements, even as fragile as they are.
“In historic buildings such as the Saratoga, that's undergoing the renovations it underwent, without specifically asking to change windows, would not be required to change windows,” Smith said.
There’s an exemption in the code for historic properties for anything that is a “distinct life safety hazard,” such as windows that break regularly just by opening them.
The Saratoga is not alone. Smith said there are dozens and dozens of buildings undergoing historic renovations in downtown New Orleans right now.
In fact, using permit data, we found 101 office to residential conversions in the Central Business District alone.
Smith said it’s a “definite possibility” some of them have annealed glass windows.
Smith said the International Building Code is designed to eliminate significant risk not all risk, and that as awful as it is Seth's case, where a person falls through a window, is unusual. That doesn’t sit well with Amy Donaldson.
“I don't want anybody else hurt. I mean, if now I have to go testify before Congress and say can you not think about windows over 60 feet, I'll do it,” she said.
It’s a disturbing thought for many that the windows might not be able to keep you in in a high rise building.
“When you start talking about this with people, they look at the windows wherever they go. It's that unsettling,” Scott said.
The window Seth fell through was still boarded up in early May.
Last August, a company affiliated with Royal Sonesta bought the Saratoga from Wisznia to convert the apartments to time shares.
In January, the company applied for a building permit to fix it up. Those plans include all new hurricane-rated windows all the way up, six months too late for Seth.
We reached out to the company for comment but got no response.