7 Months Later, This is Still so Sad

Birmingham-Shuttlesworth_Airport_450x300There’s a picture, taken by a photographer named Joe Songer, that gives me chills every time I see it. In the picture, a young boy and what looks like his parents stand in front of a large flight-information display at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Alabama. Days after the photo was taken, that very display would fall on a different boy, 10 years old, from Kansas, and kill him. It would also injure the boy’s mother and two of his siblings. That was March 22, 2013.

All indications are that a chain of contractors responsible for the design and installation of this massive, 300-pound digital sign, messed up. A similar display was removed the day after the tragedy; two more were taken down about 10 days later, after contractors admitted concerns over all the displays’ safety, according to reporting by AL.com and The Birmingham News, really the only media outlets delving into what actually happened.

In November 2014, a trial is scheduled to begin, during which a court will attempt to determine what happened to cause a massive digital sign to kill a boy and why. You can read online the lawsuit that the victims’ family brought against virtually all the contractors involved. The key words throughout are, “Defendants knew or should have known that….” A court will decide if contractors knew or should have known that, for example, adding weight to the top front of the display cabinetry and narrowing its base by one-third made it unsafe. Because apparently, that’s what happened. (Earlier this month, one of the contractors was dismissed from the suit. I’m not naming names because I’m less interested in the whos than the whys. Names are part of the public record.)

Again, the reporters in Birmingham did some great reporting, detailing the unfortunate chain of events. I encourage you to check out this PDF graphic they created, detailing the “Evolution of the flight info display.” Over a period of about 2.5 years and several design changes, it became clear to some that these displays (and by displays I mean the screens plus the cabinetry) were unsafe. One contractor apparently brought up the issue and subsequently left the project. That contractor is still named in the lawsuit.

In the interest of brevity, suffice it to say there were red flags, and three of four displays were altered in some way–ostensibly to make them safer. One wasn’t, and it fell. According to reporters, there was a design that included wall anchors, but it came out a week after the boy died. Here in Fairfax, we heard what a lot of you heard, such as a witness who told ABC News, “We didn’t see any mounting brackets, all we saw was construction adhesive.” Not to be sanctimonious, but that doesn’t reflect well on anyone who installs systems like this for a living. In the end, none of the four displays were deemed safe enough and all were removed.

What to make of this? It could take a year or more for someone to assign formal blame. So what else?

Accidents happen all the time, unfortunately, but I don’t need to tell you this one hit a little closer to home. It’s safe to say no one involved meant for this to happen, and we can’t say yet whether anyone involved was negligent. Any best practices or codes that were or were not followed will soon come to light. There were a lot of parties on this project, requiring at least some form of responsible communication.

But make no mistake, this accident was unnecessary. It should not have happened. Allied trades should have been working more closely together and communicating more clearly. Yes, things fall, and sometimes they fall on children. This isn’t about the inherent dangers of digital signage, but rather it’s about a process. It may be easy for other contractors to look at this situation, identify the probable mistakes, and swear it never would have happened on their watch. But do we learn anything from that?

Not enough has been made about what happened to 10-year-old Luke Bresette and his family. Everyone is so busy–I’m sure the contractors involved were busy on this and other projects–that it can be easy to forget things, like telling people about issues on a project or understanding when someone else tells you about an issue. It’s so important to learn what can be learned from this particular tragedy, if for no other reason than some of you who might find yourselves on a similar project down the road. InfoComm University has begun referring to the events at the Birmingham Airport during installation classes, and that doesn’t make us any better or sensitive to the situation than anyone else in and around the industry. In the immediate aftermath, we struggled with how to respond. For now, at least, we’ve decided to keep the subject and its lessons current.

Something very sad happened that we can’t undo, but what can we learn so it doesn’t happen again?


About Brad Grimes

Brad Grimes is the Director of Communications for InfoComm International and the former editor of Pro AV magazine. He has been writing about technology for more than 25 years.

6 Responses to “7 Months Later, This is Still so Sad”

  1. Brad, thanks so much for opening this discussion about this unbelievable – yet totally believable tragedy, and for pointing us to additional info. The standards community (commercial, live event, and residential) has been abuzz about this acident and the live event accidents over the last two years. There are many possible ways that people can contribute to initatives that lead to avoidance of this situation in the future- it just will take AV people with the commitment to work on solutions. You nailed it with your words “working more closely together and communicating more clearly,” somthing that we ARE doing now and continue to work on in InfoComm Standards and Industry Innovations. Anyone can drop us a line at standards@infocomm.org if they want to help create a better and safer future.

  2. Thanks for keeping this issue on the front burner. I was pretty devastated when I heard about this incident. All of us suffer from frustration at a job site when dealing with different trades and when something isn’t our responsibility it is easy to do nothing when it really isn’t our problem. Bottom line, safety is everyone’s responsibility. If I see something that might not be safe I should consider it my responsibility to let people know. This incident serves as a grim reminder of what happens when we don’t take responsibility for what we see. Somebody saw something…

  3. This was an unconscionable lack of attention to safety and protocol. I could not even attempt to wrap my head around the thought processes that allowed this to happen.

    If I were installing this, I would walk my objections to even touching these, let alone installing, to my supervisor, project manager, jobsite super, project manager, architect and whomever else was involved to get a sign-off saying I was off-base in my estimations and install them regardless.

    Because of a failure of people on about 8 different levels I can discern, people died, were injured, and watched in horror as a completely preventable incident occurred.

    Disgusting, at best.

    Jim Richards, CTS
    Richards’ Music & Electronics
    Joliet, Il

  4. Brad, thanks for putting focus on a matter that refreshes us on the impact our influence in design/project teams can be, and negative the outcomes of overlooking details that may become relegated to ‘mundane nuts-and-bolts’. It’s good to be a part of a responsible community/industry that cares.

  5. Brad:

    It’s important to keep the topic and this instance current.
    A few years ago in our town, a worker was killed falling from a roof. A failure of safety practices was to blame.
    Perhaps one would say these events are different because one person was at work (and presumably trained properly), and another was an innocent bystander in a semi-public place, but the bottom line is that someone died as the result of another’s work practices or lack thereof.
    Every individual needs to take personal responsibility for the work they are performing. It’s scary to think one or more individuals may be found negligent in the falling display case. In a criminal court, this may amount to negligent homicide.
    Let’s keep talking it up, let’s spread the word.
    It’s not just our jobs, profits and paychecks that are at risk here.

    Scott O’Connor, CTS
    Audio-Video Corporation
    Albany, NY

  6. This incident has really hit a nerve with me, as I am a Birmingham native who still is active in AV integration in the city. During this particular incident, I was working on a new project in which my company was forced by the city to jump through a barrage of hoops and such in order to be properly permitted and inspected. Being that I have literally grown up working in AV integration in Birmingham, I know the system backward and forward. That being said, the basic requirement for any AV integrator to pass a low voltage inspection by the city, is to only use hardware that has a UL or CE listing, with the label prominently displayed. The inspectors are very unskilled and do not have an understanding of very important parts of AV installations, such as grounding, rigging, etc., nor do they even check for these key parts. When this incident happened, the City of Birmingham released a statement in which they stated that prefabricated furniture items, such as the display case, were not subject to inspection. Literally the day of that press release, my client was required to have a prefabricated conference room table inspected by the city before the client could get their certificate of occupancy. The client even had to go through the process to get the table UL inspected in order for it to pass inspection. Long story short, the City of Birmingham completely fabricated their statement and have lied about the situation for months. It’s a disgrace that the contractor and installer have not been held responsible, when every AV contractor in Birmingham would agree that they would not receive the same treatment in the event their company was the company who did this work.