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State: East Coldenham School Wall Not Properly Braced

January 11, 1990

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ Flaws in the design of an elementary school cafeteria wall that collapsed and killed nine children in November left it unable to withstand high winds, state officials concluded Wednesday.

Students at the East Coldenham Elementary School near Newburgh were unaware of severe weather warnings during the storms Nov. 16, said a report by the state Disaster Preparedness Commission.

The commission, in the first official account of the causes of the disaster, recommended improved review of new school construction plans and better weather warning systems.

Nine children lunching in the East Coldenham cafeteria were killed in a hail of brick, concrete and glass when a storm with 90-to 100-mph winds slammed into the school. Fifteen students were injured.

The 55-by-25-foot wall, built in 1959, was a masonry structure surrounded by a series of metal-framed windows. An engineer hired by the state concluded the wall was not designed to withstand winds of more than 45 mph, although state building codes said it should have been designed to take winds of at least 75 mph.

If it wasn’t for the windows surrounding the masonry wall, the wall would likely have tumbled long ago, said Peter Slocum, a spokesman for both the state Health Department and the disaster commission.

The windows increased the wall’s capacity to withstand winds up to 80 mph.

″There were enough standards at the time to provide guidance to the professionals for an adequate design of the wall,″ said Richard Tomasetti, an engineer hired by the state to investigate the collapse. ″The wall, unfortunately, was not adequately designed.″

The state’s Office of Professional Discipline is investigating the school’s architect, John Clark of Hyde Park, said Thomas Sobol, state education commissioner.

Clark was not in his office Wednesday afternoon and was not available for comment. He has repeatedly refused to respond to reporters’ questions since the East Coldenham disaster.

Howard Finkelstein, a Newburgh lawyer, said he’s filed a notice of claim that he intends to sue Clark and the Valley Central School District on behalf of six of the dead children and 13 of the injured youngsters. He said the report buttresses the families’ case.

″This is not an act of God,″ Finkelstein said. ″God did not build the wall. There are human failings that took place for which someone is going to be responsible.″

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