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Day at the park a debacle when ceiling buckles

A repair at Keystone Park doesn't hold, as two women and five children learn. Who's liable?

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002


KEYSTONE -- Before the accident at Keystone Park two weeks ago, Gus Garcia spent a fun-filled afternoon celebrating his daughter's eighth birthday with several dozen relatives.

"It had been an excellent day," he said. "The weather was perfect."

But the mood turned sour when a handful of relatives decided to walk over to the recreation building for a drink of water. As they stood under the entrance, the ceiling suddenly collapsed, trapping them below heavy blocks of metal and stucco.

Last week, Garcia recalled how lucky they were that people were still at the park and in the building. About 15 people joined in a frantic effort to free the frightened victims -- two women and five children ages 6 to 9, including the birthday girl, Gabrielle.

Garcia said he was approaching the building when the ceiling fell.

"Then I didn't see anyone," he said. "They were all screaming and crying. The kids couldn't get up. My wife was trapped. It took an effort, a gigantic effort, to pull everybody out."

Most of his relatives escaped with minor injuries. But a nephew, 7-year-old Enrique Barboto, is in a wheelchair recovering from a broken femur. Within days of the Oct. 12 incident, the family filed a formal notice of claim against the Hillsborough County government, which oversaw a $729,000 expansion of the building three years ago.

County officials are expressing regret about the accident, which came after repairs were made in the same spot 17 months ago. Now officials, along with project architect Pete Tagliarini, have concluded the ceiling was never properly secured.

The accident also raises questions about whether the repair work could have been better supervised.

The subcontractor could have used a variety of fasteners, including screws and staples, Tagliarini said. But the staples used were not long enough, said Joel Jackson, manager of planning, design and construction for the county's Department of Parks and Recreation.

When the ceiling began to sag last year, Tagliarini relayed his concern about the staples to Jackson. Jackson, in turn, wrote a forceful letter to general contractor Bridgeport Inc. demanding repairs. The work went to a drywalling subcontractor who, in turn, subcontracted the job out to a plasterer.

"It appears the subcontractor just took it upon himself to use the wrong kind of fasteners," Jackson said. "I can't say why. The staples did not go in deep enough."

He and Tagliarini now agree that the best choice would have been screws.

Apologizing for the accident, drywaller Scott Silvera said he didn't know his subcontractor -- H & E Contractors in Clearwater -- did not use screws. H & E could not be reached for comment.

"I would have preferred ... screws," Silvera said.

Jackson and Tagliarini said plaster covered the staples when they inspected the repairs last year. They relied on Silvera to make sure the work was done right, they said.

"I don't think I could have done anything differently," Tagliarini said.

He and Jackson met with Silvera last week to discuss the new repairs. This time, they promised to closely monitor every step of the work. Tagliarini has hired an engineer to assist Silvera, Jackson said.

It's not clear at this point who is liable for damages. According to Jackson and Tagliarini, Bridgeport bears ultimate responsibility for the project, although Jackson said the company told him it no longer handles commercial construction. Bridgeport did not respond to several calls seeking comment.

Barboto's case is being handled by the county claims department, which has six months to investigate the incident. The maximum the family can be awarded is $200,000. If no settlement is reached, the family can file a lawsuit.

Garcia said he also has a lawyer. Some family members suffer aches and pains, he said, and all were traumatized by the incident.

"Wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "What a nightmare."

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