Published July 25, 2012
DALLAS – The company that designed and built the ill-fated Dallas Cowboys' practice facility knew long before the giant, tent-like structure collapsed three years ago that it was in danger of falling and concealed the problem, company documents obtained by The Associated Press reveal.
The emails, handwritten notes and other documents, which have not been released publicly, indicate that Summit Structures LLC knew far more about the perilous condition of the facility than has been reported and raise fresh questions about similar steel and fabric structures erected by the now-defunct Allentown, Pa., company.
"The deeper we dig into it, the worse it appears to get," an engineering consultant hired by Summit wrote in an email to company executives in April 2008, 13 months before the collapse.
The facility toppled spectacularly in a sudden wind storm as the Cowboys conducted a rookie mini-camp in May 2009. Falling debris severed the spinal cord of team scout Rich Behm, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down, and broke special teams coach Joe DeCamillis' neck. Ten other people were less seriously injured.
The documents reveal that Summit knew the facility was prone to buckling and planned to provide the Cowboys, who had complained about the building's structural integrity, with engineering calculations that would hide the defect.
Summit replaced the facility's fabric cover and made some structural repairs in May 2008. But the federal agency that investigated the disaster found that the repairs were minor and inadequate for reinforcing the frame.
The documents also indicate that the Cowboys accepted Summit's repairs without making the company's calculations available to an expert the team had hired to review the work.
Frank Branson, the attorney for Behm and DeCamillis, said the fact that Summit appears to have known the building could collapse a year before the accident makes his clients' injuries even more inexcusable.
"This tragedy was totally preventable, and both Rich and Coach DeCamillis will suffer the consequences every day for the rest of their lives," Branson said.
Behm and DeCamillis received $24 million from Summit's Canadian parent, Cover-All Building Systems, and another $10 million in cash and other considerations from companies controlled by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to settle lawsuits.
Nathan Stobbe, who was the president and chief executive officer of Summit and Cover-All, said the documents do not provide an accurate portrayal of the company but declined to elaborate.
"I'm not in position to provide you with the whole story, so I might as well not say anything," he said.
Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple said the team would not comment on the documents.
The documents show the Cowboys began questioning the facility's structural integrity in 2007, four years after it was built, and wanted their engineering expert to be apprised of what was being done to rectify the problem.
Summit was told by its own engineering firm that the frame was overstressed, but the company did not want that information to get to the Cowboys or their expert, Charles Timbie, according to the documents.
The handwritten notes of Summit legal counsel Terry Dahlem in early 2008 stated that portions of the frame were "too slender and long" and "prone to buckling" and that the engineering firm addressing the problem would "hide" the calculations in its analysis.
In a 2010 deposition, Dahlem said he likely was taking notes during a conversation with Jeff Galland, then an employee of a Las Vegas firm, S2 Engineers, which worked on Summit projects.
Galland declined to comment when contacted by the AP. He testified in a 2010 deposition that he didn't remember the conversation described in Dahlem's notes but added he would never suggest "hiding anything."
Galland held the title of engineering director for S2 Engineers even though he lacked a college degree and had spent time in federal prison for drug and weapons convictions.
A few weeks later, Dahlem forwarded an email from Galland to Stobbe in which Galland warned that "there is not another ounce of capacity we can get from the frame, and we are still a little overstressed in some areas based on the design loads."
Dahlem informed Stobbe that, while Galland appeared "a little uncertain of how to finish off his calculations," the Cowboys would be satisfied if the building received a new cover.
"The good news is that the Cowboys have not mentioned the need for them or Timbie to approve Galland's engineering in our recent correspondence with them," Dahlem wrote. "It looks like we have a green light regardless of Galland's final (calculations)."
Timbie, citing a confidentiality agreement with the Cowboys, declined to be interviewed.
An examination of court records and published reports by the AP shows that at least 14 other structures designed and built by Summit or Cover-All have failed in the last 10 years in the U.S. and two foreign countries. Eleven occurred before the Cowboys' facility fell. There are no known injuries from those collapses, which involved buildings primarily used as warehouses, barns and equestrian facilities.
Summit and Cover-All ceased operations when Cover-All filed for bankruptcy in March 2010. At the time, Stobbe announced that the firm had "recently" become aware of a design flaw that made its smaller buildings "susceptible to collapse" in wind and snow. Cover-All built approximately 35,000 of those buildings worldwide, according to a company brochure.
In addition to the Cowboys' facility, Summit designed and built large football practice facilities for the New England Patriots, Texas A&M University and the University of New Mexico.
Spokespersons for the universities and the Patriots said their facilities have been analyzed by independent engineers and reinforced, in some instances extensively.
Summit was initially involved in the reinforcement work on the Texas A&M and New Mexico facilities, but another company has taken over, spokespersons said.
"UNM has not, and is not, relying on Summit Structures for the analysis or the work," said Dianne Anderson, communication director at the University of New Mexico, where the retrofitting is ongoing.