UNC fields bedrail requests after deadly fall from bunk

Staff WritersSeptember 10, 2010 

— UNC-Chapel Hill officials are discussing whether to require bunk-bed railings after the death of a woman who fell from her daughter's dorm-room bunk bed last month.

The fatal accident has led to a spike in requests for the safety bedrails at UNC-CH. The university has received more than double the usual requests for the attachments since the Aug. 20 death of Donna Sykes, 49, who suffered a fatal head injury upon falling from a loft bed in Kenan Residence Hall.

Sykes was visiting her daughter, Jesse, 19, who was starting her first year at UNC-CH after transferring from Nash Community College. Jesse Sykes had the room to herself as no roommate was assigned.

Mother and daughter were extremely close, according to their hometown newspaper, the Rocky Mount Telegram. The young woman has cerebral palsy, and her mother was helping her adjust to dorm life at the start of the semester. A biology major, Jesse Sykes, plans a career in medicine.

Details of Sykes' death are scant. Since there was no foul play involved, campus police did not conduct a formal investigation.

Campus officials could not say how high the bed sat, but housing director Larry Hicks said the two beds in the room were not elevated before move-in.

Students can set each bed as low as 3inches off the floor to as high as 77 inches - almost 6-1/2 feet.

"I can only assume that [Sykes' beds] were lofted to provide more space in the room," Hicks said.

The beds don't come with rails, but the university says it provides them on request and is considering requiring them.

"We are in discussions on this topic as we speak," Hicks said Thursday.

Some schools install rails on every bunk and require students to sign a waiver if they don't want them, according to Mark Briggs, a safety consultant who oversaw risk management at the University of Illinois for 10 years.

"The students don't like that because it looks childish," Briggs said. "We can let intelligent adults make some of their own decisions."

When junior Matt White was setting up his room up at the start of the fall semester, he first raised his bed as high as it would go.

It wasn't stable.

"It rocks back and forth as you try to get up into it," White said. "It gets wobbly."

Eventually, he dropped it about a foot, still high enough to fit the desk and refrigerator he put underneath.

White doesn't use bedrails or know anyone who does. He didn't even know they were an option until he read a story in the Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper, about Sykes' death.

Students request bedrails

Hicks' office had received 68 requests for bedrails - more than double previous years - before Sykes' accident.

"We think it may be because we had a bedrail installed on the lofted bed in the 'show room' that we set up for orientation," Hicks said.

Since the accident, the residential education office has received about 75 requests.

Hicks said all 8,500 beds on campus can be raised, and about half of dorm students choose to raise them. That means a very small fraction of loft beds have safety rails.

Though White has never felt unsafe in his loft bed, he's considering adding bed rails.

"You never think about 'if I roll off the bed, I might die,' he said. "I never thought about it like that before. It's disconcerting."

'Incidents are very rare'

Hicks said the university does not recommend rails at any particular height, and no one else has died falling from a bunk bed at UNC-CH. He said bunk-bed falls have injured students only a handful of times over the past decade.

"Incidents are very rare," he said.

Briggs, a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, which publishes campus safety tips, said the death of a parent sleeping in a bunk is extraordinary. Most bunk accidents occur when students are drinking, horsing around or having sex, he said.

"There's usually something other than sleeping going on," he said. "There's nothing inherently dangerous about bunk beds used by adults, and that's proven out by the fact that so many of them are used without problems."

jesse.deconto@newsobserver.com or 919-932-8760

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