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Beset By Construction Woes, Atlanta Set to Open Olympic Stadium

May 10, 1996 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) _ When the Olympic Stadium plays host to its first track meet this week, the event will be celebrated by marching bands and a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Two days after the happy christening, it’s off to court, where Olympic organizers are suing the stadium’s designers over construction problems and a death of a worker.

Moments of glory shadowed by problems _ that’s been the story of the stadium and other major Olympic building projects.

From the collapse of a lighting truss at the stadium to sinking athlete dorms at the Olympic Village to fallen roof beams at the swimming pool, Olympic construction has at times seemed like too much, too quickly.

But several engineering experts with experience in similar building projects said the problems with some Olympic venues doesn’t indicated a widespread problem.

``Any time you have a lot of construction going on, particularly on an accelerated schedule, there’s an increased chance for accidents,″ said Ray Holdsworth, who heads an engineering and construction firm involved in several projects for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

``That’s probably what you’re seeing down in Atlanta right now,″ said Holdsworth.

When Atlanta won the 1996 Games, it lacked many of the venues needed for an Olympics, so it embarked on a $500 million building program that includes 11 new facilities and renovations to several others.

The centerpiece is the 83,500-seat Olympic Stadium, where opening and closing ceremonies and the track and field events will take place. On May 18, athletes will break in the stadium at the Atlanta International, a Grand Prix event featuring sprinters Michael Johnson, Carl Lewis and Gwen Torrence, heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee and triple jumper Jonathan Edwards.

Despite the fallen light truss that caused the death of construction worker Jack Falls in March 1995 and the beam that came down at in the pool March 18, Olympic officials insist their buildings are safe. They staunchly deny that tight schedules contributed to either accident.

``If you look at any construction program of this size, it has been extremely successful,″ ACOG spokeswoman Lyn May said. ``When you say problem, it’s been a media description _ not ours.″

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found no evidence in either case that corners were cut to save time or money, OSHA regional director Tom Brown said.

Yet the construction problems are an unwelcome distraction to Atlanta organizers, who are striving to ensure the Centennial Games come off without a hitch.

The sheer size of the Olympic construction program presents ample opportunity for calamity, said Ron Labinski, senior vice president of Kansas City-based HOK, a leading architectural firm for stadiums and arenas.

``There obviously is some pressure to do quite a bit in a short period of time,″ he said. ``That doesn’t mean these incidents are a direct result of that, though, and it doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that these are isolated.

``This doesn’t justify it by any means, but those things do happen. Any major project like that, whatever building type it might be, always has that kind of risk. People get injured and killed.″

Construction problems in the Olympics are not unprecedented.

The main stadium for the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal was plagued by massive cost overruns, and in 1991 it was closed temporarily after a 55-ton concrete beam fell off the side and crashed onto a walkway below.

Los Angeles had no such problems, largely because the city needed little new construction for the Olympics.

Even before ground was broken, the Atlanta stadium gave the organizing committee headaches, and it almost didn’t get built.

Frustrated by neighborhood residents who didn’t want a stadium in their backyard and politicians who opposed paying for long-term maintenance, ACOG president Billy Payne in 1993 threatened to tear up his plans and build a temporary structure in the suburbs instead.

Because ACOG had promised to pay for converting the Olympic Stadium into a new ballpark for the Atlanta Braves and make it a gift to the city, the threat stirred the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. An 11th-hour deal was struck to build the stadium as proposed.

Atlanta watched proudly as the structure began to take shape.

Then on March 20, 1995, the truss at the stadium collapsed.

An OSHA investigation found an engineering mistake had caused the collapse. A review by an outside engineering firm, New York-based Weidlinger Associates, found numerous other structural flaws that needed to be corrected.

The repairs have been completed, May said.

``I think they expected that they would get a clean bill of health ... that everything else was fine. Well, Weidlinger did anything but that,″ said Philip Henry, a lawyer for Falls’ survivors, who sued ACOG and the design team, a joint venture of Heery International Inc., Rosser International Inc., Williams-Russell and Johnson Inc. and Ellerbe Becket Inc.

The Falls case is one of four lawsuits relating to the stadium, including ACOG’s suit against the designers.

The construction problems didn’t end with the stadium.

Last summer, two dormitory towers where Olympic athletes will sleep _ built by the state, not ACOG _ were found to have sunk up to 9 inches into the ground. While settling is normal in new buildings, 9 inches was worrisome.

The cause was traced to a mathematical error by the dorm’s engineers, and continued monitoring was recommended. Outside engineers said the buildings could suffer cracked bricks or buckled door frames in a few years.

Students have been living in one of the sinking buildings for several months without incident. A normal rate of sinking continues, said John Butler, acting director of the Georgia State Finance and Investment Commission.

Workers had just installed beams to support a roof over a section of temporary seats at the aquatic center in March when two of the 10,000-pound joists crashed to the ground.

No one was injured, but the incident prompted four iron workers to quit their jobs at the $21 million arena on the Georgia Tech campus. A probe by the general contractors, Gaston-Thacker-Whiting/Turner, blamed the collapse on insufficient welds, which officials say have been corrected.

Holdsworth, whose firm worked on an airport addition in Los Angeles as well as the equestrian and cycling venues for the ’84 Games, said problems with Olympic construction appear magnified because of the intense media coverage the games attract.

``If it was something going on in a smaller city and it wasn’t the Olympics, you’d probably hear about it once and that would be the end of it,″ he said.

But HOK’s Labinski said the accidents in Atlanta would get wide attention anyway.

``It’s still national news ... when someone’s killed in the construction of a stadium,″ he said.

End advance for May 11-12