NDSU: No signs hinted at building failure
North Dakota State University's interim president pledged Monday to find out what caused a partial collapse of Minard Hall, as the university filed a $500,000 notice with the state insurance fund.
Dick Hanson, who convened an emergency response team, said the safety of faculty, staff and students is paramount, and no one will be allowed into Minard Hall until structural engineers and other professionals deem it safe.
"This is a major structural failure that we will investigate, we will get to the bottom of and we will get resolved, I'll guarantee that's going to happen," Hanson said.
The northwest wall of Minard Hall, a sprawling four-floor building serving several departments, collapsed early Sunday, leaving offices exposed to the elements with a gaping hole and cracks in the brick façade.
The building, which has had several expansions and renovations in its 108-year history, is getting an $18 million addition, largely for office space. As part of prep work for the addition, Meinecke-Johnson Construction of Fargo was excavating the ground north of Minard Hall.
Dirt was excavated about 25 feet deep near the northwest corner of the building for several weeks before the collapse, said Bruce Frantz, director of facilities management for North Dakota State University.
Although the building's foundation was exposed, the best advice from a number of sources - including Heyer Engineering of Fargo, the engineering firm working on the project - had concluded it was stable, Frantz said Monday.
It now appears, however, that a lower portion of a major pillar previously visible on the exterior of the northwest wall failed, he said.
It is clear the excavation played a role in the pillar's failure, but the investigation is ongoing as to why the structural element gave way, Frantz said.
Minard Hall was recently subjected to vibrations when pilings were pounded into the ground to protect a steam tunnel and the stair tower at the building's north entrance, but officials kept an eye on the building, Frantz said.
"There was no indication anywhere that we had a problem," he said.
Frantz said he doesn't regret any decisions made in the excavation.
"We made decisions with the best knowledge available at the time," he said.
No blame with claim
The collapse will likely add "several hundred thousand" dollars to the cost of the $18 million Minard Hall addition project, Frantz said.
NDSU filed a $500,000 notice of loss Monday with the State Fire and Tornado Fund for the damage, but Frantz said the figure was "just pulled out of the air," and there is no firm estimate.
The university is required to file the notice, and it doesn't mean NDSU admits to any liability or responsibility, Frantz said.
"Right now, everybody's working together to come up with a solution to get it done, and we'll have the insurances and the attorneys, I guess, work through the process," he said.
Rescue crews were called to Minard Hall at 3:17 a.m. Sunday after receiving a report that the foundation partially collapsed.
Fargo firefighters spent more than an hour on the call before determining no one was inside the building.
They checked the collapse area on each floor by yelling and listening for responses by anyone who might have been trapped or buried in the rubble.
"It was really fortunate that it was 3:30 in the morning during Christmas break," Fargo Assistant Fire Chief Larry Schuh said. "Otherwise, you would have had a totally different situation."
Crews finished shoring up the foundation with fill by about 1 a.m. Monday.
Meinecke-Johnson President Randall Johnson declined to comment Monday when reached by phone.
The portion that collapsed will eventually be razed. Part of the wall was already slated for demolition as part of the addition project, Frantz said.
In the meantime, engineers will take a closer look today to see if a crane can be attached to exposed structural beams on the third floor, Frantz said.
The idea is to keep the roof intact, but it also may allow NDSU to retrieve some of the books, computers, artifacts and other belongings of the 30 to 35 faculty members whose offices were damaged in the collapse, he said.
Officials are reviewing ways to retrieve or salvage those materials, possibly from the inside corridor if the roof is stabilized or from the outside using a hydraulic lift or cherry picker-type machine.
"There's a lot of angst, and until we get some answers, it's difficult," Provost Craig Schnell said.
Faculty members will relocate to the second floor of nearby Morrill Hall, which is being renovated, Schnell said.
Departments affected by the collapse include sociology, English, psychology and the Office of Institutional Research.
Students will return to portions of Minard Hall deemed safe when classes resume Jan. 11.
The building's north stair tower is intact, as is a lecture bowl across the hall from the collapsed area. Officials have yet to decide whether to allow students into the lecture bowl.
"We want to keep using that if we can, but we won't certainly put anybody at risk," Hanson said.
Security guards will be watching the building around the clock, NDSU spokeswoman Najla Ghazi Amundson said.
Temporary heaters are keeping the stable portions of Minard Hall warm as NDSU and Xcel Energy crews try to restore utilities and keep the collapsed portion cut off, she said.