The owner of the Littlefield garage in downtown Austin is still working to replace the cable barricade system after two people drove off the side of the structure 10 months apart.
During an inspection of the structure, a city building official discovered several oversights by the property owner, engineer and code investigator involved in the case.
Christi Bowmer was the second driver to break through the cable barricades at the garage. She explained what happened during an interview with FOX 7 Austin in August 2017.
"I went straight down and crashed. And I was awake the whole time and it was the most horrific thing that I have ever been through," Bowmer said.
Bowmer was parking on the seventh floor when she admittedly hit the gas pedal by accident and launched her BMW off the building. It's a mistake she will pay for the rest of her life.
"Apart from the head trauma, which almost got me, I have a fractured sternum, fractured ribs, I have a fractured scapula, I have a broken tibia, I have a fractured ankle and L4 in my spine exploded,” said Bowmer.
Christi has since filed suit against the garage owner and management company, partially because she found out, just ten months prior to her near-death experience, a man drove off the same garage on the ninth floor. That time a cable got caught on his front tire, suspending him and his SUV in midair. He was able to climb out with the help of a witness.
It appeared the Austin Code Department was on the case.
“We responded to the complaint that same day. We received the call from the Austin Fire Department,” said Code Supervisor Matthew Noriega.
Once city documents showed the barricade system did not perform its intended purpose during either crash, City Building Official Jose Roig said he made a site visit and inspected the entire garage.
Roig said the garage was built in 1979 so it should have been constructed to comply with the 1976 uniform building code, but, according to Roig, the cable barriers didn't meet those requirements, even on the ninth floor where repairs were supposedly made months prior to Roig's inspection.
“The spacing between the cables was actually more than was required by code and there were loose cables in there,” Roig said.
In 2017, following the second crash, the building owner released a statement to FOX 7 that reads in part, "After the previous incident, we engaged a structural engineer to review the situation, and repairs to the safety barriers were performed according to his recommendation."
At that time, FOX 7 filed a public information request to look through the code department's case file on the garage. That's where we found the engineer's letter certifying repairs were completed in accordance with 2012 building codes.
Roig said his inspection showed otherwise.
“We found out that many of the cables were actually loose and we also found out that many repairs were done throughout the years with no history of any permits,” said Roig.
We contacted the engineer who signed that letter, but he said he could not comment on the case.
“He should not have signed off on that, but that's his responsibility as an engineer,” Roig said.
We asked Noriega how the code inspector on the case didn't notice the repairs were completed without a permit. “What the inspector did is he relied on the engineer report and the engineer report stated the repairs were completed,” said Noriega.
A recent statement sent to FOX 7 by the garage owner and management company's attorney blames the code inspector for the mistake. It reads in part, "A City of Austin code official came to the garage at that time and provided instruction as to the necessary repairs. Thus, the repair in September 2016 was made while working directly with City of Austin Code Enforcement, and the City of Austin code official involved never indicated the need for a permit."
That directly contradicts this sentence included in the owner's previous statement, "The City of Austin permitted and inspected such repairs to their satisfaction."
Noriega said neither of those statements is true.
“He was told that a permit was going to be required and that an engineer report was going to be required due to the wrecking of the cable barrier system,” said Noriega.
Still, Noriega said his officer closed the case without inspecting the cable barricade system himself. That officer has since been moved to another role within the department.
“So he did not follow policy. So that issue was addressed,” Noriega said.
Although Roig could file a complaint against the engineer with the Texas Board of Professional Engineers, he said they've elected not to do so in this case.
Meanwhile, it's up to code officers to cite the property owner for making repairs without a permit.
“We would file charges if a building permit was not obtained, so that is one of the processes that we do follow if a permit wasn't obtained,” Noriega said.
When we asked whether any charges have been filed for those reasons Noriega responded, “That is something that we would need to look into.”
This time around, according to city documents, the garage owner has obtained permits for repairs and has agreed, with constant city oversight, to update the garage so it complies with 2012 building codes.
“They chose to go back with a cable system that is within code,” said Roig.
Code said the new cables will need to be no more than four inches apart and an engineer will be required to demonstrate that the system can hold up to 6,000 pounds.
Bowmer can't help but wonder if that would've been enough to stop her BMW.
“In all likelihood, if they'd had this cable system up to code, she would not have gone off the side,” said Bowmer’s attorney Randy Howry.
Austin Code said they have put new policies in place following an internal investigation at the end of 2017.
Bowmer's case against the garage owner heads to court in September.
The full text of each statement used in this investigation is below.
GTT Parking, L.P. statement sent to FOX 7 on 7/13/17:
We regret the unfortunate accident that happened today in our garage and are thankful that no lives were lost. A similar incident happened in September 2016 in the same garage, but on a different floor.
This morning, the car apparently hit the barriers at a rate of speed sufficient to break-through and hit the building across the alley. The garage was built in 1979, and these are the only two such incidents since its construction 38 years ago.
After the previous incident, we engaged a structural engineer to review the situation, and repairs to the safety barriers were performed according to his recommendation.
The City of Austin permitted and inspected such repairs to their satisfaction.
Premier Parking, the manager of the parking garage, manages over 400 parking locations across the United States, and they have not experienced anything like this in their 15-year history other than the previous incident. Although all the facts of this accident are still being gathered, we will work to ensure the safety of our parking guests.
Statement sent to FOX 7 on 2/16/18 by Tasha Barnes on behalf of her clients, the garage owner and management company:
Following the driver error in September 2016, the City of Austin issued a Notice of Violation solely because the cable barrier system had been broken as a result of that accident leaving an unguarded edge in the area where the accident occurred. A City of Austin code official came to the garage at that time and provided instruction as to the necessary repairs. Thus, the repair in September 2016 was made while working directly with City of Austin Code Enforcement, and the City of Austin code official involved never indicated the need for a permit. A licensed professional engineer oversaw and approved the repair to insure compliance with the applicable code under which the building was originally permitted. Following that repair, the City of Austin closed its file as there were no violations and the garage was in compliance with applicable code.
Last July, a driver confused the pedals in her vehicle and fully depressed the accelerator pedal when she intended to hit the brake. As a result of driver error, she drove over a cement parking stop and continued driving through the cable barricade system.
The garage owner is not aware of any issue involving the garage not complying with code as it would have been repaired promptly. To the contrary, in September 2016, the City of Austin indicated that the garage was in compliance with applicable code. Nevertheless, following the July 2017 incident, the garage owner agreed to work with the City of Austin to bring the garage in compliance with current code. Significantly, the primary difference between the 1976 code and the 2012 code involves the spacing of the cables in the cable barrier system.