Falling Light Poles Spark Investigation

Light poles made and designed by two Fort Worth companies

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    An Austin American-Statesman investigation found that several athletic lighting poles designed and fabricated by the same Fort Worth companies had fallen across the country.

    The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has announced it will investigate toppled light poles to try to determine the cause of the failures.

    The decision announced last week came after the Austin American-Statesman reported on toppled light poles in Texas and elsewhere.

    One fell over recently at the Bill Power Stadium in Uniontown, Pa., where an 80-foot athletic light tower made and designed by Fort Worth companies crashed to the ground, crushing bleachers. The stadium was empty at the time.

    "The potential for some really nasty stuff was there," said school Superintendent Charles Machesky.

    Two weeks ago, an American-Statesman investigation found that in the past three years eight athletic lighting poles, all designed and fabricated by the same Fort Worth companies, had fallen across the country. The newspaper since has confirmed that five other poles made and designed by the same companies have fallen, the Uniontown pole among them. No one has been injured.

    Two poles fell in Central Texas, in the Hays and Round Rock school districts. Poles have also fallen in Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota and Massachusetts.

    The Consumer Product Safety Commission said Thursday engineers will look for the cause of the topped Texas-made poles, according to spokeswoman Kathleen Reilly.

    In addition to the poles that have fallen, many others have been removed for fear they would fall soon. As of the end of last week, at least 80 poles nationally had been removed or had extra support added to keep them standing. In each case, the poles, which weigh as much as 3 tons and in theory should last decades, were erected only a few years earlier.

    The damaged poles all appear to have the same lineage, according to former company executives and engineers who have studied the failures. They were designed by Whitco Co. LLP and fabricated to Whitco's specifications by another Fort Worth company, Makers Co. Inc.

    A Mexican company, Grupo Polesa, through its American arm, TransAmerican Power Products Inc. of Houston, supplied the metal shafts, but engineers who have examined the poles have not identified that company's work as contributing to the failures.

    Started as a family business in 1969, Whitco was sold in 2000 to a group of out-of-state investors. The company's name is on the light poles' warranties, although Whitco declared bankruptcy in 2006.

    (An investment group purchased the Whitco name in 2006. Although the new company is also named Whitco and sells light poles, a spokesman said it was an unrelated entity.)

    Though former Whitco executives said they sold hundreds of the so-called high-mast athletic lighting poles between 2001 and 2006, no one has been able to reconstruct a comprehensive customer list to warn current owners of the potential danger.

    A former official of Whitco declined to comment to the American-Statesman.

    Makers Co. president Greg Haskin, who said his company only welded the shafts to baseplates according to Whitco's specifications, said that in about 2000, when Whitco was purchased, some of the company's designs changed.

    In failed Whitco poles Haskin has since examined, he said, "some of them basically were overloaded. The base plate should have been a thicker base plate. The tube should've been thicker for the load. It appears that some of these poles were underdesigned."

    Whitco's bankruptcy has meant that in many instances pole owners have to bear replacement costs.