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Girl falls 15 feet when stair spindles snap

She was in a critical state after the Monday accident at her parents' million-dollar home.

Published January 18, 2006

TAMPA - In the Heritage Oaks subdivision of Hunter's Green, made up of million-dollar homes, 6-year-old Julia Grimes waited at the top of the staircase Monday night for her mother to bring her a drink of water.

Julia leaned against the banister and the wooden spindles suddenly snapped, causing her to fall 15 feet to the ceramic floor below, according to police.

The spindles inside the $1.2-million home, police later reported, had been held together with glue and staples.

Julia was flown to Tampa General Hospital where she remained in critical condition Tuesday, said hospital spokeswoman Ellen Fiss.

Her parents, who were with their daughter, declined to comment, Fiss said.

"It's a parent's worst nightmare, to think their child has been injured," said Kristin Tonelli, principal of Hunter's Green Elementary School, where Julia is a first-grader. "It's a terrible, just unimaginable situation."

After the accident, police officers tugged at the other spindles and found them to be wobbly, leading them to think they were all held by the same materials, said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

"It appeared that was the way it was made because the others were all loose," she said.

Jim Greenhalgh, chief building inspector for the city of Tampa, said in his 15 years as an inspector, he has never seen a guardrail held together by staples and glue.

"These premade spindles, they bore a hole into the upper rail and it just goes in," he said. "I'm not exactly sure what they would have stapled."

Building codes require that the guardrail system should be designed to take a concentrated load of 200 pounds, Greenhalgh said.

"The code doesn't tell you what you can or cannot use," he said.

But city inspectors do not apply 200 pounds of pressure to test staircases, he said.

"I might push it with my hand, put a little impact on it," he said. "I wouldn't say anything about it unless I saw something that I would really question."

Because it has been years since the home was built, the city won't take any action, Greenhalgh said.

The home was built in 1994 by Burley Construction. Company owner Mitch Burley said Tuesday that he remembers the home on Longwater Run Drive well. It was one of the largest homes the business had built at the time, and one of the most expensive in the area.

He said he had to hire a specialty company to install the "grand staircase" because it was made of solid oak, with round handrails at the top. There are two sets of stairs, one curving right, one curving left, he said.

Burley said he does not remember the name of the company.

Burley said balusters are typically fastened by drilling a hole in the floor, then another hole on the underside of the handrail and putting glue in both ends and putting the balusters into the holes.

"The only thing I can imagine is the wood was cracked, whether from somebody falling against it, or a piece of furniture hitting it while moving it up the stairs," he said. "There's absolutely no telling how this thing would have cracked. It certainly wouldn't break by the weight of a young child."

Burley, a father of three, said he was devastated when he heard the news.

"I just can't imagine," he said.

Burley Construction did not build other houses in Hunter's Green, but was an active builder in the Valrico area around that time. Burley said his company now focuses mainly on commercial construction.

According to property records, James and Katherine Grimes purchased the six-bedroom, 6.5-bath home for $1.2-million in November 2004.

Authorities have closed the investigation, classifying it as an accidental injury.

"It looks like it was a very tragic situation for this little girl who was innocently waiting for her mother and ended up taking a very serious fall," McElroy said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 18, 2006, 13:59:38]

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