- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

Every year, Mark Swimmer crowds as many as 20 people on the roof-top deck of his Federal Hill home in Baltimore to watch the Fourth of July fireworks display over the Inner Harbor.

But yesterday he was thinking twice about doing that again.

With the Fourth of July celebrations just days away, Mr. Swimmer, 39, is one of many Washington area residents and housing inspectors who will be checking up on the stability of their decks and balconies after a deck collapse in Chicago killed 12 persons and injured dozens during the weekend. One of the victims was John Jackson, who recently graduated from the Georgetown University School of Business.

“A lot of people here have tons of people on their rooftops,” Mr. Swimmer said. “It should be a concern. … It’s just proof positive why applying for permits, having inspectors, doing things the right way, makes a difference.”

Steven Messerschmidt, a home inspector in Northern Virginia, said the best tragedy prevention is common sense. “But on the Fourth of July, we know there’s going to be alcohol, and we also know that common sense and alcohol don’t go hand in hand,” he said.

Although deck collapses are rare and usually occur in older structures, Mr. Messerschmidt said overcrowded decks combined with dancing can easily lead to a collapse.

“Once the deck starts swaying, it’s coming down,” he said. “They’re not really designed to carry heavy loads, and that’s of course what they had in Chicago.”

Sonny Mosier, a manager with U.S. Inspect, said that according to permit regulations, balconies and decks should support 60 and 40 pounds of weight respectively per square foot. Although the capacity depends on the size, he said most apartment units will only support six persons.

The collapse in Chicago occurred early Sunday morning after an estimated 60 people crowded onto a 13-foot-by-20-foot deck.

“I just hope everybody learns a lesson from this,” Mr. Messerschmidt said.

Andy Acquilino, 29, said he and his friends will think twice before gathering on his friend’s Canton area deck in Baltimore to celebrate Independence Day.

During a New Year’s Eve party, Mr. Acquilino said there were many more partygoers on his friend’s deck than its capacity allows. He said the incident in Chicago just reiterated that he and his friends should be more careful.

“Probably 99 percent of the people around here were never told how many people they could or should have on their decks,” he said. “I think after what happened Sunday, [capacity] is something they will have to take into consideration.”

George Mitton, a production manager at Johnson’s Landscaping Service in Bethesda, said residents shouldn’t worry about the stability or sturdiness of their decks and balconies as long as they don’t overcrowd them and they obtain a permit for the structures.

Maryland, Virginia and the District have strict standards that contractors must meet before building a deck, Mr. Mitton said. He said many construction companies will often go above and beyond the requirements to ensure safety.

For example, the permit process in Montgomery County requires builders to apply for the permit and present preliminary drawings of the deck to the county. After initial approval, an inspector will visit the site during construction and again when construction is complete.

George Muste, a manager with Permitting Services of Montgomery County, said many requests are rejected because applicantsdon’t have adequate drawings or the drawings contain structural flaws. To build in Montgomery County, any suspended structure such as a balcony or deck is required to have a building permit, Mr. Muste said.

Mr. Mosier said some of the problems can occur when homeowners try to build a deck themselves. “They think they know what they are doing, but they don’t,” he said.

Mr. Messerschmidt said homeowners tend to build around the problems instead of solving them. “A lot of homeowners will brag about how they built a deck themselves,” he said. “That might send up a little red flag.”

But Reggie Morris, a production associate at a Home Depot store in Northeast, said homeowners can build their own extensions, as long as they first obtain a permit from the city or county. “You must have a permit. I mean, that’s the law,” he said.

Mr. Morris said he won’t help customers without permits because it’s too dangerous to work without proper documentation. He said that each day he helps six or seven customers who want to build a deck. Most either have permits or are contractors, he said.

Mr. Mosier said he would encourage residents to reconsider packing full their decks or balconies this weekend. “You just can’t have large parties on those short structures,” he said.

A good way to determine whether a deck is too full is when people have to stand shoulder to shoulder to fit, Mr. Messerschmidt said.

Mr. Mosier suggested that homeowners should check their balconies and decks for any signs of failure such as cracks, unstable railings and broken connections. Signs of fatigue may be reason enough to get an inspector to take a look at the deck, he said.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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