The defective concrete raker beam that prompted cancellation of a professional basketball game at Alltel Arena last week was poured by Baker Concrete Construction Inc. of Monroe, Ohio, on Sept. 15, 1998, according to the project manager.
Anderson Consulting Engineers of Little Rock was responsible for inspecting the raker and all other construction work done on the $80 million arena.
It took almost 13 months of additional construction — accompanied by site inspections along the way — before a misplaced steel reinforcement bar and a crack in the beam were discovered. That helped persuade engineers the safety of the arena was so suspect that 18,000 fans had to be turned away from the Oct. 12 game three hours before it began.
Engineers on the job, including Willard Reese and John Watkins of Garver Engineers, were concerned that more cracks could appear in raker beams throughout the arena with a sold-out crowd weighing down the facility.
"I have to respect the engineers' position, as did the board," says Art Hunkele, senior project manager for the construction management team of Vratsinas Construction Co. of Little Rock and Turner Construction Co. of New York. "When there were concerns they expressed, we had to alleviate those fears and not put anyone at risk. No one can assume that responsibility or liability.
"Right now, though, we have to get the rest of the beams tested and uncover any other things that make the engineer uncomfortable, turn that data over to the public and build their confidence that everything is safe to occupy."
Hunkele wasn't too talkative when asked who is to blame for what is one of the biggest blunders in Arkansas construction history. But he acknowledged that Baker Concrete Construction poured the beam in September 1998. And Anderson Consulting Engineers also shares some responsibility because it inspects construction work at the arena, Hunkele indicated.
Bob Russell, chairman of the Pulaski County Multi-Purpose Civic Center Board, still isn't sure how the steel rebar was placed 12 inches too low in raker beam No. 24 beneath Section 209 of the arena. And he's unsure how a crack appeared in the beam.
"We cannot answer those questions and [the engineers and contractors] cannot answer them," Russell says. "They know what the problem is, but they don't know [why] and they probably won't ever know."
Even Scott Anderson, a principal with Anderson Consulting Engineers, says he is uncertain what caused the crack to appear in the raker beam beneath Section 209.
"At this point in time, we're trying to find out what has happened," Anderson says. "I don't have any specifics to comment on. We've had representatives over there with the design engineers, walking through it."
Anderson says that even though the beam was poured in September 1998, there was still much work that had to be done around it — attachments and connections to the beam.
Russell agreed the timing of the announcement — while thousands of fans were on their way to see the game — was very bad.
"It's confusing to me," Russell says. "Willard had some concerns as of Friday [four days before the exhibition game], but I thought they had been repaired. I didn't know they had a concern about the possibility of having problems on the other 21 [raker beams]. Then we were called to a meeting at 1:30 [the afternoon of the game].
"That's when Willard said he and John [Watkins, the structural engineer for Garver] still weren't 100 percent comfortable. They had a game plan to have engineers there to observe [raker beams at the game]. But once we found out there was a concern, there was no way we could let 8,000 people come sit upstairs. So we said, 'We've got to cancel this thing.' Because if the engineers have any concern whatsoever, we can't take the liability of putting people upstairs.
"My first reaction was, 'Why at 1:30 p.m — hours before we're going to open — are you all of the sudden having concerns?'"
In addition, a crack found in another raker beam beneath Section 208 had been repaired in May. That beam was repaired with a steel jacket covering the crack.
At a meeting with engineers last Wednesday, Russell pushed the need for the firm to begin X-rays of all 22 raker beams supporting the arena's upper deck Thursday, while the week-long job of filling seats with five-gallon bottles of Clear Mountain Natural Spring Water and Mountain Valley Water — 15,000 of them — continued.
Russell says Garver Engineers brought in a second structural engineering firm from Little Rock and another from Houston as consultants on the fix Wednesday.
Russell says he also met with the arena attorney Tuesday "to see what we needed to be doing right now and what we need to do."
He says no further action would be taken until the arena assesses the potential of total claims for losses.
Russell was awaiting estimates from Pizza Pro and Sim's Bar-B-Que, the two vendors working Tuesday night, on their estimated losses and awaiting a final tally from the event's promoter.
The arena carries business interruption insurance, and each of the engineering firms also carry insurance policies. Russell was not sure of the carriers.
He said the decision to pull the plug Tuesday afternoon was made by Reese and John Watkins, the structural engineer for Garver on the project.
As the first of 15,000 five-gallon bottles of water — a total of 630,000 pounds — was loaded onto the upper deck at the arena last Wednesday, Gus Vratsinas says a nine-foot steel plate will be placed over the cracked raker beam to provide a permanent fix.
"The columns we put up are a temporary fix," Vratsinas, who owns Vratsinas Construction, says. "You could leave those up there forever, and it would be a solution to the problem. But aesthetically, they don't want those pipe columns left there."
Hunkele says that late Wednesday, the arena contracted with a firm to provide large water weights, such as bags of water that are used to fight forest fires. That allows the testing of the upper deck to be done more efficiently instead of repetitively moving five-gallon bottles of water around the arena.
Andrew Meadors, president of the Major Sports Association, says last Tuesday was "simply a nightmare."
"It was a public relations nightmare to entice and tease the taxpayers who paid for the building and to not cancel the event until three hours before tip-off is unbelievable," Meadors says. "It was a textbook case of what not to do, public relations-wise. I was shocked and distressed. Turning away Phil Jackson, a five-time NBA coaching champion; Shaquille O'Neal; Kobe Bryant; Frank Deford from Sports Illustrated, to turn all these people away, the situation had to be really bad.
"All the bad publicity of the past two years pales in comparison to what happened [Oct. 12] by itself. It was so incredibly terrible. They should have canceled it before the Lakers and Wizards flew in here. It was most unfortunate.
"I feel sorry for Bob Russell and the arena board."
The major concern now for everyone involved at the Alltel Arena is the long-term perception of the problems by the basketball, hockey and entertainment fans who would attend events.
"The PR part of it is the toughest part," says Michael Marion, general manager of the arena. "We're just going to have to work real hard to make sure everybody understands this will be a safe building. It'll take time and good communication with the public."