7 Months Later, This is Still so Sad
There’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?