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Automated Retrieval System Failure Results in Catastrophic Fire at Storage Facility

By: Bill O'Donnell
Tel: 412-835-5007
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The largest storage rack/ retrieval system, larger than two football fields and eighty feet wide was constructed to store 108 million pounds of paper products. On July, 2002, after two months of use, the facility collapsed and sparked a fire that destroyed the entire structure and 45 million pounds of paper. Nearly 50 fire departments responded to the inferno, which burned for three weeks. The owner of the facility sued a number of companies that included the contractor that designed and built the structure, a subcontractor, and the company that supplied the 110 foot steel columns. The plaintiff's counsel argued that the prime contractors had breached its contract to provide a structurally sound, state-of-the-art automated retrieval system, that the design, manufacturing and installation of the system were defective.

O'Donnell Consulting (OCE) was hired by the plaintiffs counsel to determine the cause of the accident. Using material and metallurgical analysis, as well as comprehensive finite element modeling, OCE determined that the structure had failed not only due to inadequate bracing, but also to improper construction and welding of the tubes used to support the facility. The tubes were formed by bending a flat shape into a square shape, then welded along the seam. OCE determined that the automatic welding of the tubes was defective and not of full thickness, and that there were methods available to inspect and check the welds coming off the production line, which the manufacturer had failed to perform. The counsel for the tube manufacturer had argued that the company's steel columns met industry standards, and that any open welds or defects occurred as a result of the collapse, rather than being the cause of the collapse.

The plaintiffs sought compensation, based on property damage, loss of business, and other factors, including reconstruction. After 4 weeks of deliberation, a jury determined a verdict for the plaintiffs in the amount of $63,335,819.


O'Donnell Consulting Engineers, Inc. (OCE) provides engineering, failure analysis, metallurgy, and expert witness services. Providing analytical, design, testing, and technical problem solving services for more than 30 years, our extensive experience gives us credibility in expert witness testimony. Our results are based on quantified engineering principles and analysis- not just opinions. We have testified in International, Federal, and State Courts, presenting comprehensive technical reports, models, and simulations that are easily understood by Judges and Juries.

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