It was a load-bearing concrete block wall weakened by poor drainage and not a sinkhole that caused the partial wall collapse at a local preschool and daycare facility, according to the owner of an excavation company, as well as a structural engineer hired to stabilize the structure.
Robert Roberts, the owner of Robert Roberts LLC of Chattanooga, told the Cleveland Daily Banner that a basement wall of 1970s-era split-level building that housed Westside Christian Academy collapsed due to the construction methods used to build the wall, which was beneath the ground.
“It was not constructed as a retaining wall,” Roberts said. “Typically, there would be a solid concrete wall.”
Roberts explained the wall consisted of hollow concrete block that was not filled with material or had steel reinforcement, such as rebar. In addition, Roberts said there was no gravel backfill present to enable water to drain away from the wall.
“It was just dirt compacted against the wall,” Roberts said.
He also said he could determine several attempts had been made to repave a portion of the parking lot adjacent to the wall, possibly to address leaks around the foundation of the structure.
“There were several asphalt patches,” Roberts said. “The ground was heavily saturated by rain, and the pressure built up.”
That’s when the wall collapsed.
The incident took place at approximately 9:50 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. Sept. 26, sending concrete blocks and other debris into classrooms located in the basement of the structure. The children were quickly evacuated to the adjacent Tennova-Westside facility, leaving behind backpacks, as well as other belongings. They sheltered at the Tennova facility, accompanied by their teachers, to await the arrival of their parents.
In addition, patients, as well as staff at Can Do Kids Pediatric Therapy Services located next door, were also evacuated from the building.
Both businesses are looking for temporary locations. Westside is considering four potential sites, including Westmore Church of God, the former La Petite Academy, Mount Olive Church of God and Tennessee Christian Preparatory School.
According to Can Do Kids office manager Dee Cogdill, therapy service officials have located a new site but have not yet announced its location.
“We are in the process of getting it ready to move into.” Cogdill said. “We are doing some cosmetic work, which should be completed in a week or so. We will get it up and running as quickly as we can.”
Roberts said his company worked to shore up the structure, which took about 12 to 14 hours. In addition, Derek Kilday of Geo Services evaluated the condition of the soil that had entered the basement of the building, as well as the stability of the parking lot. It was determined the structure was in danger of further "catastrophic collapse."
“We got equipment there and stabilized by 3 or 4 a.m. [Thursday],” Roberts said, adding that the work had to be conducted outside of the structure due to its instability. He said Rebecca Brooks of Woods Engineering "assessed the damage, made recommendations and provided on-site drawings."
A system of buttresses was built to secure the building.
“We had to figure out how to do it from the exterior,” said Roberts, who added that 19 dump truck loads of soil and rock were removed from the site to expose the foundation.
The work enabled the retrieval of personal items left behind by the students and teachers.
Roberts said his analysis is speculative until a final report is written by the insurance company. However, he was confident his analysis will be reflected by the insurers. He said the insurance company will determine whether the building is salvageable or a total loss.
“This is what they saw,” Roberts said.
Woods Engineering structural engineer Rebecca Brooks told the Cleveland Daily Banner that her firm was in charge of ensuring the structure was shored up and not in immediate danger of total collapse. She agreed that a sinkhole was not the cause of the partial wall collapse.
“It was not a sinkhole,” Brooks said. “The rain had a lot to do with it. There was not much drainage behind the wall and water was getting trapped. It was water pressure.”
Brooks said the insurance company will have a forensic engineer study the building to make the final judgment regarding the cause of the collapse. She said she was unaware whether the wall’s construction met or violated 1970s-era code requirements.
The work to save the building from further collapse has elevated the building's structural integrity from "condemned" to "safe to evaluate" for 30 days, according to Roberts.
Roberts said a division of Sedgwick Claims Management Systems Inc., will be conducting the forensic investigation for the insurance company.
There are no records available that reveal who built the building, according to Bryan Turner, who is the chief building official for the City of Cleveland.
"I don't think they were required to keep them," Turner told the Cleveland Daily Banner.
Turner said building code requirements may have been less stringent 40 years ago.
"It was a young inspection program at that point," Turner said.
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