By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
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By Jill Stewart
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John Kelly, the county‘s superintendent for building and safety, is in charge of monitoring Universal’s compliance, or lack thereof. Kelly knows exactly how difficult it can be to examine the connections of a steel-frame building; his own office, in the headquarters of the L.A. County Department of Public Works, was mutilated by an inspection crew. That building, incidentally, towering over Alhambra like a giant glass Rubik‘s Cube, did not have cracked welds in the inspected areas, but the welds were of such poor quality that the inspectors launched a further investigation, which is still under way.
Kelly strolls the halls of his department with the apparent conviction that the steel-frame issue is of little real concern. When I ask about Universal’s noncompliance with the mandatory county ordinance, he casually replies that the only entity familiar with the status of Universal‘s compliance is Universal. Or, in Kelly’s exact words, ”They‘re the keeper of those keys.“
When I ask why Universal was never issued formal compliance orders, Kelly turns defensive and explains that formal compliance orders are never issued when Building and Safety is well-acquainted with the owner in question. ”Compliance orders are used when you have no knowledge of who the owner is,“ Kelly says. ”You’ve never met them, you have no idea who they are, they could be out of state, you send this formal notification.“
This was not the case with Universal. Posters from the studio‘s movies decorate the halls outside his office, and Kelly emphasizes his own direct contact with Universal executives. ”I’ve had personal meetings with the top management of Universal,“ Kelly explains. ”And I told them, ‘Listen, the only reason I’m not giving you these formal compliance orders with a deadline is because you‘re working with us. If at any time you stop working with me, I’m going to issue this order, and you‘re gonna have a deadline.’“
But Kelly can produce no evidence that Universal has been working with him. In fact, when I ask for any document at all describing the status of Universal‘s steel-frame buildings, Kelly can only reply, ”I don’t really have anything to show you. I mean, they haven‘t submitted plans yet.“
The one thing Kelly can point to is the fact that in March 1999 -- coincidentally the same time the Weekly ran several articles about the steel-frame issue in L.A. -- Universal hired the engineering firm John A. Martin & Associates to conduct a survey of the buildings on the lot. Barry Schindler, the Martin executive in charge of Universal’s account, admits that several of Universal‘s steel-frame buildings, including some in CityWalk, have not had their welded joints inspected. But that’s all the firm is willing to say. For more information they, like Kelly, suggest contacting Mark Lyum, a vice president at Universal. Lyum did not return numerous phone calls, although an appointee from his office did finally return a call to declare that Universal Studios has no comment on the matter.
While neither the county nor Universal can produce any documents regarding the status of these buildings, Kelly has no problem assuming that they are safe. ”If we had any building under our jurisdiction that was in danger of collapse or severe structural failure, we‘d red-tag the building. We have no problem with doing that,“ he says.
Of course, the law requires inspections, and it’s Kelly‘s job to see it through. But in the end, who’s counting? Remember: out of sight, out of mind. ”The district attorney has one guy assigned to us for every violation in the entire county,“ Kelly says. ”It‘s not a high thing for the D.A. to pay attention to. And the courts don’t like to see it at all.“
At the root of this complex issue is a simple, inanimate substance -- a cheap-and-easy weld metal called E70T-4, manufactured and marketed almost exclusively by a multibillion-dollar company in Cleveland called Lincoln Electric and used for the past 30 years in nearly all steel-frame construction in the U.S. The cracks in steel-frame buildings start in the heart of this brittle weld material, sometimes even without the stress of an earthquake.
Tests were done on E70T-4 connections as far back as the 1960s. Many of these laboratory examinations found cracking at very low levels of stress. However, says Caltech‘s John Hall, the fractures were assumed to be flaws in the welding technique, not in the weld metal itself. Unfortunately, the tests were never seen as an indication of what might be happening in the field. ”Somehow, they weren’t making that connection,“ Hall says. That oversight served Lincoln well, since E70T-4 is by far the cheapest way to construct a building.
”It just caught on, became the thing to do,“ says Hall. ”And the underlying reason is because it‘s cheaper. But it was only cheaper because they were not really paying enough attention to doing it properly.“ And no one, so we are to believe, noticed a thing, until the Northridge quake made the problem too obvious to ignore.