Loose Screws

Bank One Ballpark may be in danger of collapsing. The Arizona Diamondbacks didn't want you to know that.

"URGENT NEW INFORMATION!! PLEASE FORWARD TO RESPONSIBLE PARTIES OF THE BANK ONE BALLPARK SAFE OPERATION AND MANAGEMENT!!"

The Diamondbacks kept secret Ramon J. Cook's warning letter until August 21.
The Diamondbacks kept secret Ramon J. Cook's warning letter until August 21.

So began a stark, and somewhat bizarre, letter that was faxed on May 16 to Arizona Diamondbacks attorney Brad Holm.

Ramon J. Cook, a construction engineer from Texas, had been hired to review Bank One Ballpark as part of an ongoing lawsuit over $35 million worth of disputed construction costs. Cook's findings, sent to Holm in a four-page letter that day, were dire. During his review of construction procedures, Cook concluded that portions of the three-year-old, $370 million ballpark might be in danger of collapsing.

Approximately 1,500 anchor bolts -- called Dywidag bars -- that support the stadium's grandstands had not been properly installed and were in danger of twisting loose, Cook's letter said. The Dywidag bars are used to secure 87 steel trusses to concrete columns. The trusses, in turn, support sections of the stadium's lower deck, the suite level boxes, and the press box. If the Dywidags were to fail, the result could be a catastrophic collapse of sections of the ballpark.

"These fasteners simply were not installed in a manner which is proper for a long-life, permanent structure with lives at stake in the event of failure," Cook's letter stated.

The Diamondbacks were on a road trip to Montreal when Cook's startling warning reached the front office. When the team returned to Phoenix one week later, more than 31,000 fans poured into the ballpark to watch the D-Backs defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates. Those fans were among the 2.9 million people who entered the ballpark last summer, never knowing that serious questions had been raised about the structural integrity of the stadium.

The cash-strapped Diamondbacks kept Cook's warning secret. Not only were fans kept in the dark, but the team did not formally notify the owner of the ballpark, the Maricopa County Stadium District, until late August, when it finally forwarded a copy of Cook's warning letter, stadium district records show.

The Diamondbacks, who have day-to-day control of the stadium's operations, did not follow up on Cook's concerns by immediately examining the suspect Dywidag bars. Instead, with the blessing of the engineers who helped build the stadium, they waited to conduct an inspection until six days after the baseball season ended -- almost five months after Cook had sent his urgent fax to the team.

And even when an inspection was conducted on October 9, no one turned any of the one-inch nuts to see if they were loose. Inspectors simply looked for cracked paint, a sign of possible movement. The eyeball inspection, which was conducted by the stadium's engineers, Martin/Martin, and paid for by the team, found that all the Dywidag nuts were fastened securely, even though many of the nuts are hidden from view by walls and other obstructions.

Although Cook's concerns may have been somewhat alleviated by Martin/Martin's inspection, the team's handling of the Dywidag alarm raises real questions about the way Bank One Ballpark was built, and how the Diamondbacks are operating it. Those concerns could spread beyond the ballpark.

The Diamondbacks general partner -- Jerry Colangelo -- already controls the operation of America West Arena, which is owned by the city of Phoenix. And Colangelo may soon play a day-to-day role in the Arizona Cardinals' new stadium. Colangelo is strongly pushing for the new football stadium to be built in downtown Phoenix near Bank One Ballpark and America West Arena.

Bank One Ballpark records show that Cook's original concern that the Dywidag nuts were not properly fastened has some merit. Rather than using a hydraulic wrench to securely and precisely fasten the Dywidag nuts at a specific tension -- as engineers had originally planned -- Bank One Ballpark construction workers instead pounded on a wrench with a sledgehammer to tighten the nuts. Workers were unable to use power tools because the bars were "inadvertently mislocated" and not enough clearance was left around the Dywidag nuts to use the hydraulic wrench, stadium district records reveal.

Using the "Bubba" method to fasten such critical connections sounds far-fetched to the structural steel assembler at the Sky Harbor Airport Terminal 4 construction project. The airport project is using similar connections as those at the ballpark.

"I question whether that [hammer to wrench technique] is quite right," says Cary Newton, president of J.D. Steel. "We are not doing that at the airport, I can guarantee you that."

In addition to the unusual tightening technique employed at Bank One, district records and interviews also reveal no one has yet reviewed in detail the Dywidag inspection reports that were compiled during construction by the ballpark's field inspection firm, ATL Inc., to determine what nuts were inspected and if proper manual tightening procedures were followed.

Furthermore, what records that have been reviewed have been described by the team as unreliable.

The team's admission that inspections were poorly recorded alarms Newton. "If you don't have anybody there recording inspections, then you have a big problem," he says. "If it was my building, I would be very concerned."

Such worries, however, are not shared by the stadium district or the team.

"Why lose sleep over it?" says former stadium district director Bob Williams, who oversaw construction of the ballpark and now is directing the county's jail construction program. Williams says the ballpark's engineering team reported that the Dywidags were installed properly, and that has satisfied the district that the building is safe.

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