By M. Scott Carter
MOORE – When the storm came, seven students in the Plaza Towers third-grade center sheltered in the hall. At Briarwood, the students and teachers thought the school building would protect them.
Then the tornado hit, and the schools fell.
Instead of offering protection on May 20, 2013, Plaza Towers became a deathtrap, Briarwood a pile of rubble.
Detailed in a soon-to-be-released report for the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Structural Engineering Institute, an analysis of the debris of the Briarwood Elementary School showed that several of the building’s steel roof beams were not attached to the walls, many of Briarwood’s cinder-block walls were not properly reinforced with steel rebar and large portions of the walls were not backfilled with concrete.
Chris Ramseyer, the civil engineer who studied photographs of the Plaza Towers School, said the photographs showed similar problems and raised serious questions about Plaza Towers’ design and construction quality.
Both Plaza Towers and Briarwood were destroyed when an EF5 tornado struck. Neither school had safe rooms. Seven students were killed at Plaza Towers after walls of the third-grade center, a building next to the main school, collapsed. At Briarwood, at least 24 pupils and teachers were injured when the school’s cinder-block walls fell.
“Odds are, if the schools had been built right, the walls would not have fallen,” Ramseyer said.
In addition, construction documents obtained through an open records request show that Briarwood Elementary was designed by a now-defunct architectural and engineering firm whose founders were disciplined for design flaws in other projects.
Briarwood and RGDC
Briarwood Elementary School, at 14901 S. Hudson Ave., is a small complex comprising a central building, classroom buildings, a multipurpose building and storage buildings.
Construction records show the central building was designed in 1984 by architectural and engineering company RGDC, a once-prominent Oklahoma City firm.
RGDC also designed Bodine Elementary School, Westmoore High School, the aquatic center at Oklahoma City Community College, the Oklahoma County Jail, the Federal Transfer Center at Will Rogers World Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration Aviation Records Building and two water treatment plants for Oklahoma City.
But when problems with the Oklahoma County Jail surfaced, RGDC was publicly vilified. In 1996, two of the company’s principals were found guilty of professional misconduct by the Oklahoma State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors.
Records show that Donald G. Douglas and Richard D. Gravlin, two RGDC partners, were found guilty of practicing engineering outside their area of competence and ordered to surrender their professional licenses for six months.
The company’s third founder, architect F. Robert Cornell, was found guilty of practicing engineering without a license and was ordered to cease and desist.
The 1984 Briarwood School plans carry Cornell’s architect stamp.
During the trial, engineers testified that RGDC’s plans for the Federal Transfer Center were filled with dangerous errors. Alan Synar, the attorney for the engineering board at the 1996 hearing, said engineers found more than 1,500 mistakes in RGDC’s plans for the FAA’s Aviation Records Building.
The firm restructured after the three founders were found guilty and changed its name to Triad Design Group. Gravlin died in 2010. Attempts to locate Cornell were unsuccessful. Phone calls to Douglas were not returned.