Two courthouse skylights shattered in freak accident Tarps full of water prove too heavy

August 10, 1991|By Brian Sullam

Truth and Logic were casualties at the Clarence Mitchell Jr. Courthouse yesterday morning.

Some wiseacres believe those two values take a beating there every day, but it wasn't abstract principles that were roughed up just after the courthouse doors opened.

Instead, the stained-glass depictions of Truth and Logic -- two of eight principles portrayed above the courthouse's stairwells -- were severely damaged by a freak construction accident. The two skylights started to fall about 9:25 a.m.

"I had just come into my office and was standing by the door when there was a tremendous sound of crashing glass," said Ara Crowe Jr., who heads the trial division of the state's attorney's office.

A panel of stained glass, 4 feet by 4 feet, had crashed onto the stairs between the second to the third floor on the building's Lexington Street side. Twenty minutes later, an even louder noise echoed through the courthouse as the stained glass window on the opposite set of stairs fell.

"I heard the rumbling, and I started to run," said Nancy B. Pollack, an assistant state's attorney. "I would have gone down the stairs near my office, but they were closed because of the first accident."

Rhonda Charles, a courthouse employee, was hit by falling glass and sand but escaped injury. Chief Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan saw the second skylight collapse and thought it might have been caused by "a brick or an object falling from above. But when I saw the tarps, I realized what had happened," he said.

Construction crews working on the roof had spread large blue tarpaulins across the skylight wells to catch falling debris. But yesterday, the tarps collected rain from the early morning downpour and couldn't support the weight.

According to Thomas R. Jones, the courthouse's building manager, hundreds of gallons of water fell about 30 feet onto the Plexiglas domes above each of the stained glass skylights. Hit by the concentrated force, the protective domes popped and pushed against the skylights, causing them to fall out of their steel frames.

The tarps were put up earlier this week by workmen cutting marble capstones on the roof. Steel support beams designed to hold air conditioning units were going to be placed in those cuts. A foreman of Whiting-Turner, the general contractor, refused to comment on the accident, but two of the company's employees said a subcontractor had actually put up the tarps.

The panels will cost more than $100,000 to replace, said Judge Kaplan. The work will be done by Rambusch Studios, the New York stained glass company that fabricated and installed the windows six years ago. The contractor's insurance will cover the costs.

Judge Kaplan, the force behind the courthouse's seven-year, multimillion-dollar restoration project, waxed philosophical about the damage, "In this particular case, Logic was hurt more than Truth."

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