The O'Donnell Park Garage Tragedy

A Terrible Tragedy In Milwaukee

O'donnell parking garageA couple weeks ago, a 27,000 lbs. slab of concrete fell from the O'Donnell Parking Structure killing a child and injuring two others.  Although it continues to headline in the local news, it doesn't fully convey the political ramifications of the incident.  The parking garage is owned by Milwaukee County, and it just so happens that Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County Executive, is the top gubernatorial candidate in the race.     

Fifty-eight minutes after the incident and while a dead body was still buried beneath the rubble, County Chairman Lee Holloway hurried a press release calling for a complete investigation into all county properties saying that a backlog of maintenance raised serious public safety concerns.  The effect of the Holloway's release signaled that Walker's penny-wise budgeting would become a target for weeks to come.

When Walker arrived on the scene, he was briefed by emergency personnel.  Afterward, he released a statement indicating that there was no known report suggesting the O'Donnell ramp had deferred maintenance.  He also criticized Holloway for politicizing the tragedy.

The O'Donnell Incident Raises a Few Points

First, what caused the slab to fall? Shortly after the parking garage was first built, stress cracks developed in the weight-bearing supports indicating they weren't properly rated.  To remedy the problem, tons of soil were promptly removed from the top level of the garage while engineers strengthened the steel-and-concrete skeleton of the structure. The building's architect was subsequently fired and then sued by Milwaukee County for a botched job.  But cracks in the structure do not mean it caused the slab of concrete to fall.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently headlined an article stating that only two connecting rods were used to support the 13 ton decorative facade when the original specs had called for four connecting rods.  It is quite possible that this shortcut played a role as to why slab fell killing the 15 year old.  In terms of possible liability, therefore, it will also include a county leadership from the 1990s headed by Democrat Dave Schultz.     

Second, The county released an itemized report to the media listing all of the recent repairs done to the O'Donnell Parking Garage.  A 2009 audit flagged certain problems like "roll down fire doors", "corroded connections on electric panels", and "missing ceramic tile".  After examining the audit, it is clear that none of the problems noted in the audit could have lead to the dislodgement of the facade.  And even more important, Walker corrected all of the "critical", "potentially critical", and "necessary" problems noted in the audit before the tragic collapse.  Therefore, Holloway's comments were premature and disgraceful.

And third, it's inspiring that how Holloway used this tragedy to make himself into the County's harbinger of building maintenance.  Less inspiring is how Holloway's own apartment buildings became the focus of a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigation.  Holloway's nine properties had had more than 150 building code violations.  Violations such as holes in walls, roach infestation, doors without handles, windows that don't close, and kitchen sinks with no running water are serious issues for tenants.  Holloway's violations were so severe, in fact, that the city placed him on a special enforcement list dedicating a single inspector for his apartment buildings.  In simple terms, Holloway is a slumlord of major proportions.   

Politicizing a Tragedy

Ultimately, we need to find out what happened and how to ensure this doesn't happen again.  But pointing fingers before the facts are gathered are both irresponsible and disingenuous.  For example, Jim McGuigan, a former county supervisor, wrote a hit piece on his blog called "Watchdog Milwaukee" saying that Walker allowed the structure to erode causing the death of a 15 year old.

The irony, of course, is that former Jim McGuigan was ousted from his job for a $50 million pension scandal that rocked Milwaukee County and continues to create budgetary problems til this day.  Watchdog Milwaukee?  No, not really. 

But Mr. McGuigan isn't the only one chiming in without all the facts.  The Neumann campaign issued a press release blaming government for not providing a safe infrastructure for its citizens.  Neumann said,

"Government’s legitimate functions include providing safe infrastructure for its citizens. This concern must be paramount.

It is clear that along with this latest tragedy, the county courthouse, the Zoo Interchange, and the Hoan Bridge, a number of structures in Milwaukee County are in various stages of disrepair. A full investigation and safety review is absolutely warranted, particularly for structures and facilities that have already been flagged for critical problems."


Neumann's statement is a new low even for his campaign.  Neumann knows that engineers are currently examining the structure to determine the cause of the event.  This means, of course, that the precise cause or cluster of related causes is still unknown.  Neumann should let the engineers do their work and let the facts speak for themselves.  Politicians only muddy up the waters.

And second, Neumann's campaign stated that the Zoo Interchange and the Hoan Bridge are in disrepair.  This is true, but the inference is that since these structures are in Milwaukee County, they are county problems.  The Zoo Interchange and the Hoan Bridge are not owned or managed by the Milwaukee County government.  By listing them, Neumann's campaign misled readers to think that Scott Walker is somehow culpable. 


All of the finger-pointing aside, we must keep in mind that a real tragedy occurred.  Many of us who are parents understand how heart-wrenching it is to see things happen to our children.  Our hearts go out to the family who lost their child.  May God strengthen them during this terrible time and may they find peace in a storm of calamity.

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