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D.A. Zappala: No Criminal Charges in Shaler Area Elementary School Ductwork Collapse

Allegheny County District Attorney's Office

As children all over the region head back to school, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala announced his office will not pursue criminal charges in last year's ductwork collapse at Shaler Area Elementary School. Last spring, more than one ton of HVAC ductwork came crashing down on cafeteria tables injuring 13 people. Seven kids and two adults were taken to the hospital with injuries. Zappala said the situation must be set apart from other incidents, such as the Center City building collapse in Philadelphia.

“There was no prior notice that this is a dangerous condition, there were no directions of ‘you will or will not do certain things,’ and nobody was killed,” said Zappala, “so what we were able to investigate was recklessly endangering another person, causing a catastrophe, risking a catastrophe and reckless conduct.”

Zappala said the ductwork collapsed when a metal cable support system failed. The ducts were hung from the ceiling by cables spaced at every ten feet. But there is a question over whether the cables and the catch mechanism were appropriate for the size of the ducts.

“The system that was used that day should not be used, according to the manufacturer, on ductwork that exceeds 24 inches in diameter. The ductwork that fell that day was 40 inches in diameter,” said Zappala.

Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The cables tore through the catch mechanisms before the ductwork fell.

But, there is some ambiguity in the standards. While the size limit is stated at 24 inches, an instructional Youtube video shows the system being used on ducts larger than that. Plus, Zappala said those who would be responsible for inspections have said they would have seen this system as an acceptable alternative to other duct-hanging or mounting systems. Overall, Zappala said, nobody is taking responsibility for the collapse and it will now be up to the civil courts to determine wrongdoing. He said no civil suits have been filed yet, but guarantees there will be.

“I haven’t seen medical records but according to the people who represent these kids [a couple of them are] going to have physical and psychological problems for the rest of their lives,” he said.

As the new school year gets under way at Shaler Area Elementary, Zappala’s office said the school has redone the duct system. It is now attached to the superstructure of the building and a drop ceiling has been added so that the kids don’t see the ductwork.