Dave Umhoefer and Steve Schultze
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE (AP) — J.H. Findorff & Son Inc. was the consulting firm responsible for ensuring the O’Donnell Park structure followed engineering plans and for inspecting work for quality, including changes made in the project, according to contract documents obtained by the Journal Sentinel.
The firm has downplayed its oversight role as the construction manager hired by Milwaukee County since a fatal accident last month, in which a 13-ton panel fell and killed a Greenfield teen. But the contract with Madison-based Findorff makes clear the firm was one of the key players along with architect and engineering firm Miller Meier Kenyon Cooper and the county itself.
The question of whether 70 decorative concrete panels were installed according to authorized plans has become a central one for investigators trying to determine why one of the panels fell June 24 and killed 15-year-old Jared Kellner, who was on his way to Summerfest. They want to know who approved any changes and why, and the safety effect of any decisions.
The Journal Sentinel has reported the panel was held in place by two connections instead of the four called for in designs and did not use any of the four pre-drilled holes. A second panel removed Thursday was also held in place with two connections, and investigators are reviewing whether the connections were as deep and strong as called for.
Meanwhile, the firm that fabricated and installed the panels, Advance Cast Stone of Random Lake, on Friday made its first public comments since the accident. Based on the information the company has collected so far, “We are confident the company proceeded properly,” the firm’s attorney, Joshua Levy, told the Journal Sentinel.
Advance Cast Stone officials are working with county investigators and pulling together historical documents to help determine what process was followed, Levy said. It’s premature for anyone to draw specific conclusions about what caused the tragedy, he added.
The company has not spoken out since the incident because it wants to gather all the facts first, Levy said.
Advance Cast Stone is concerned about unverified information being given to the public, he added.
“We’re confident that all work proceeded among the construction team, and nothing proceeded independently of that team,” Levy said.
O’Donnell Park was plagued by serious structural flaws even before it opened in the early 1990s, spawning litigation and finger-pointing and major renovations — though the panels were not cited among earlier problems.
The construction team on the project included Findorff, hired in 1987 by Milwaukee County as construction manager.
Christopher Smocke, who headed Findorff’s local office and was its project manager and later principal in charge at O’Donnell, did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Mike Dillis, Findorff’s vice president for operations, had indicated late Thursday he would talk to a Journal Sentinel reporter about O’Donnell Park. But Friday morning, he said the firm would not make any comment on the contract.
“It’s being investigated by a lot of different entities, so I’m going to decline,” he said.
Last week, before the Journal Sentinel obtained the Findorff contract, Dillis described the firm’s consulting role as “helping to facilitate paperwork and administrative type duties.”
“We were not overseeing and inspecting the work,” he said.
But inspection duties are laid out in detail in the 1987 contract between Findorff and the county.
“Full time and day-to-day” is how the inspection duties are described.
It’s not yet clear whether changes made in panel designs actually were formally authorized in change orders or other plan revisions. That could make a difference in determining who was ultimately responsible for the changes.
According to the contract, Findorff was part of the “consulting team” on the project. Team members included Milwaukee County public works and parks officials, the original architecture and engineering firm, Miller Meier Kenyon Cooper and other consultants, according to Findorff’s contract.
The Miller Meier firm went out of business in the 1990s after a lawsuit by the county over structural problems at the structure.
Inspections were just one aspect of Findorff’s responsibilities, as spelled out in the contract, which the Journal Sentinel obtained from court files. The firm’s duties included reviewing preliminary plans, preparing a budget, recommending cost-saving measures and assisting with bidding.
During construction, Findorff was to coordinate contractors’ work with the county and Miller Meier to meet the county’s objectives on “cost, time and quality.”
In interviews after the incident, Dillis — the Findorff official — told reporters the firm was not responsible for how contractors did their work, because Findorff did not have contracts with those firms, the county did.
While Findorff did not, in fact, have such contracts, it was supposed to guard Milwaukee County from defective work and require special inspection or testing of any work that didn’t follow construction contract documents, according to the contract obtained by the newspaper.
As a consultant, Findorff was supposed to “reject work which does not conform to the requirements of the construction contract documents,” which included change orders, plans, plan revisions, specifications, change orders and contracts.
Findorff, the contract states, was to guard the county from “defects and deficiencies in the work.”
County officials believe Findorff’s duties included inspection of how the concrete panels were installed and ensuring they were installed in accordance with design plans. Ultimately, it was the county’s role to approve any change orders, according to county Public Works Director Jack Takerian.
So far, investigators have come up with no change orders on how the panels were to be installed, after scouring the county’s and the project engineer’s project files, Takerian said. One change order has been located that approved shortening the height of the concrete panels installed over the O’Donnell ramp entrance and exit by about four inches, he said. That was done to maximize clearance for large trucks, he said.
In comments last week and in the days immediately after the panel fell, Dillis of Findorff argued the firm did not have the authority to approve and review shop drawings.
Shop drawings are the detailed construction documents that contractors create based on the architect’s specifications.
The shop drawings for the precast panels would have detailed how they were to be installed and whether any revisions to those were made in advance or during the installation.
The Journal Sentinel has requested those documents, and others related to the project under state open records laws, but the county has not provided them.
The newspaper obtained copies of blueprints for the panels from city building inspection files.
Milwaukee County had duties under the contract as well.
The county was supposed to promptly notify Findorff if it learned of any defect in the project or non-conformance with construction plans or changes, the contract states.
According to the contract, Findorff’s services would include the principal official assigned to the project, the office project manager and the field superintendent/engineer.
It does not specify who filled those positions, but documents in court files dating from litigation over structural problems at O’Donnell indicate that Smocke was Findorff’s project manager there from July 1987 to around January 1990.
Smocke then took over as principal in charge at O’Donnell, he said in an affidavit filed in court.
He described himself as a vice president of Findorff in charge of its Milwaukee office.