21 hurt when deck collapses at Ocean Isle

slyttle@charlotteobserver.comJuly 10, 2013 

Inspectors in Ocean Isle Beach are investigating what caused a second-floor deck to collapse at a rental home Tuesday night, injuring 21 people.

Most of those hurt in the collapse were released from coastal hospitals Wednesday. Brunswick County emergency services director Anthony Marzano said the injuries were mostly cuts and broken bones.

Meanwhile, experts wondered if Tuesday’s collapse and a similar incident last month in Cherryville are the result of structural failures in buildings built before construction standards were toughened. Ocean Isle Beach’s mayor said she would like to see additional study of decks and similar structures on larger beach rental homes.

The collapse was reported about 8:15 p.m. at a privately owned residence on Ocean Isle West Boulevard, according to authorities. Marzano said 25 people were on the deck when it gave way.

Of those injured, 13 were taken to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, seven to Brunswick Novant Medical Center in Supply, and one was airlifted to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington.

Several neighbors said the victims were renting the house for the week, as is typical with a number of homes at Ocean Isle and nearby beaches. The Brunswick County beaches are a popular vacation destination for Charlotte-area residents.

Brunswick County tax records show the residence was built in 2003 and inspected that year. State law does not require subsequent inspections unless the residence is sold.

Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith told The Observer she is concerned about the larger beach homes.

“I do not think the N.C. building code anticipates 20 to 30 people in a small deck at one time,” she said. “It happens often for photo ops with large families at the beach.”

Peter Combs, an Atlanta-based architect who has testified in more than 90 court cases involving structural integrity, said Wednesday that in most deck collapses, the problem actually is with the connection between the deck and the house.

“Normally, the structure itself does not break,” Combs said.

He said building inspectors assign a limit for both “dead weight,” when the deck is empty, and “live weight,” for when it is occupied. It is unclear if those limits were exceeded Tuesday night at the Ocean Isle residence.

In the Cherryville case, three people were hospitalized with injuries when a deck gave way at a private residence. In that case, Gaston County officials said the deck was more than 20 years old and couldn’t handle the weight of the 25 people who were on it.

In recent years, construction experts have warned that changes in building materials could lead to cases of structural collapse because of corrosion.

Until 2002, pressure-treated wood was coated with a compound made mostly of arsenic. But concerns about that poisonous material led to the EPA asking lumber manufacturers to coat wood with a copper compound.

In a 2005 report, several Auburn University faculty members said the new treated lumber might be more corrosive to nails, screws and other metal fasteners. Chris Baylor, a writer with the website About.com, reported that the collapse of a deck in Kentucky in 2003 might have been due to metal fasteners becoming corroded. Thirteen people were killed in that incident.

“The code has changed, and some of these structures probably were built before the changes,” Combs said.

Can visitors – for example, people renting a beach house – do anything to check on a deck’s stability?

“Not really,” Combs said. “You’d have to take a flashlight, go under the deck, and look for something sagging or giving way. Most people won’t do that.”

Ocean Isle’s mayor says she is “not qualified to know what changes might be appropriate.”

However, she added, “I feel this needs further discussion and examination.”

Lyttle: 704-358-6107 Twitter: @slyttle

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