Inspectors will 'tear into' faulty escalator

June 20, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr.and Deidre Nerreau McCabe | William F. Zorzi Jr.and Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writers

A team of engineers, mechanical experts, state officials and ++ inspectors will descend on Oriole Park at Camden Yards today )) to begin its investigation into the cause of the escalator accident Saturday night that injured at least 43 fans.

While no one would speculate yesterday on the cause, one person familiar with the mishap said that officials suspect either a break in the chain that moves the escalator up and down -- devices that generally are good for 25 years -- or a faulty brake system.

The incident was the second -- and most serious -- involving Oriole Park's two right-field-side escalators, which had been rebuilt because of a structural problem before this year's baseball season opener.

Officials of Montgomery Elevator Co. Inc., based in Moline, Ill. -- which manufactured, installed and maintains the stadium's five escalators -- did not return telephone calls to their offices or homes yesterday.

Witnesses told of hearing "some sort of a cracking sound or noise," said Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, "and immediately, the escalator reversed directions and then stopped."

That jolt, about a half-hour before the 7:05 p.m. game time, sent scores of people tumbling down the escalator atop each other. At least 30 received hospital treatment.

"We have been told that the usher stationed at the exit point acted absolutely in accordance with procedure, that as soon as the crack noise sounded, he pushed the stop button," Mr. Belgrad said.

The state's chief elevator and escalator inspector was at the game Saturday and responded to the accident, but apparently was not able to examine the mechanics of the escalator because the maintenance cover was jammed shut, state officials said.

They also said that the two escalators on the right-field side of Oriole Park, including the one that malfunctioned, were rebuilt since last season and inspected by the state just before the April 4 opening day.

The problem prompting the reconstruction was a shifting of the steel structure that supports both escalators -- the longer, failed escala

tor between the main concourse and upper deck, and the one between the main concourse and club level.

The shift caused the escalators to be "misaligned," said Sherman B. Kerbel, the stadium authority's director of facilities management. "It didn't track properly, and the safety devices would trip prematurely," shutting the escalators down.

The escalators -- with safety devices described by state officials as "state of the art" -- have had problems since the ballpark opened, but not on the scale of Saturday's accident.

Those problems had to do with the safety devices being so sensitive that they would often shut down the escalators -- "false stops" that required "debugging" in the first 1 1/2 years of operation, Mr. Kerbel said.

The structural misalignment is not suspected as the cause of the accident at this point, Mr. Kerbel said.

"Both escalators were torn down to bare bones and basically rebuilt," Mr. Kerbel said. "So we went into the '94 season with basically two mechanically brand-new escalators."

All five escalators have been shut down until state inspectors say they can be used again.

Orioles team officials said yesterday they knew of no incidents or accidents involving any of the escalators at the ballpark.

But the shorter of the rebuilt escalators, the one not involved in Saturday's accident, malfunctioned a month ago after a game against the Boston Red Sox, according to people who called The Sun, saying they witnessed the incident.

Stadium authority officials said initially that they knew of no earlier accidents similar to the one Saturday night, just the problem with the "false stops."

But when confronted yesterday with eyewitness accounts of the incident after the May 17 Boston game, stadium authority officials acknowledged a problem with the second, right-field club deck escalator.

Edward E. Cline, deputy director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said the May 17 incident was not serious and there was no injury.

"They were experiencing that it was going too fast for a brief period of time," Mr. Cline said.

But fans who saw the incident characterized it differently.

"It was after the game. I was walking out . . . on the right-field side," said Joe Battenfeld, a reporter in the Boston Herald Washington bureau. "I heard a loud noise, and I saw all these people falling on top of each other. . . . There were around 20 people piled up."

Mr. Battenfeld said someone shut off the escalator and security guards ran over to help those who fell.

"People were screaming. They were banged up," he said. "Most people walked away. But there were some kids and elderly people who were crying.

"This escalator was out of control," he said.

Two other witnesses confirmed Mr. Battenfeld's account yesterday.

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