Commentary

Lessons learned from Cowboys tragedy

Originally Published: May 5, 2009
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

BubbleSummit Structures brochureA Summit Structures brochure includes this testimonial from the Cowboys' Jerry Jones.

After watching the horror in Irving, Texas, this past weekend when the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility balloon collapsed and injured 12 people, professional and collegiate sports teams across the country are looking at their own structures with an eye toward avoiding a similar tragedy.

Most teams contacted by ESPN.com said they are taking a cautious approach, but at least one school -- the University of New Mexico -- is being more proactive. In 2007, New Mexico built a structure similar to the one that collapsed in Texas. On Monday, the university indicated it will no longer use its facility as an emergency gathering place and will review all safety policies.

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The storm that tore down the Cowboys' indoor practice facility left an indelible impression on those who experienced the chaos, writes ESPN.com's Matt Mosley. Blog

"I know we'll sit down and look at some procedures for high winds," said Scott Dotson, the associate athletic director of facilities for New Mexico. "I don't know where we go from this, but right now, it's trying to figure out the problems. Why did it go down? What were the differences between our facility and the Cowboys' facility?

"I guess there are a lot of unknowns right now."

Dotson said the university usually uses the facility as a place students and faculty can go in case of lightning or an emergency. He said that likely will no longer be the case. The university decided to build a frame-supported structure instead of an air-supported bubble because it created more space inside, including room for footballs to be thrown higher and longer. New Mexico's facility, which Dotson said cost $6-7 million, is made with steel beams, similar to the Cowboys' structure. Players on the football, track, baseball and softball teams are among those who regularly use the practice facility. Dotson said the structure is not in use this week because students are taking final exams.

According to the Web site for Summit Structures LLC, the Allentown, Pa.-based company that built the Cowboys' facility six years ago, Texas A&M and the New England Patriots both have Summit-built frame-supported structures. But most other pro teams and schools use air-supported domes, which, according to an official for a company that makes them, are safer.

[+] EnlargeHouston Texans Facility
AP Photo/Eric GayWhen the Super Bowl came to Houston in 2004, the Patriots used the Texans' indoor practice facility.

"One of the most important things for me to do is to clarify that [the Cowboys' facility wasn't] an air-supported structure; it was a frame-supported structure," said Donato Fraioli, CEO and head engineer of Air Structures American Technologies Inc. "Our structures are air-supported and do not rely on being held up by a large aluminum or steel-supported frame. There's no question -- and we've been doing this 47 years -- we highly promote the air-supported structure over the frame-supported structure."

Fraioli said that the frame facilities -- which his company sells, too -- are very large, heavy and costly. He said the Miami Dolphins' air-supported practice facility, which was designed to withstand up to 140 mph winds, cost around $2 million; were it a frame structure, the cost would have been double or triple that number. Harvey Greene, a spokesman for the Dolphins, said the team's facility, which was built in 2006, can't be compared to the Cowboys' situation because of the differences in region and the materials used to build it.

"Because of our geographic location, we have to be cognizant of potential hurricanes," Greene said. "It's a different situation, a different type of structure and a different type of geographic location that has different factors taken into account."

Greene said safety measures being taken by the team are an internal matter but added, "We certainly review things at all points in time that affect our team [or] players or any safety issues that might come up."

Fraioli said the use of a facility built with beams comes with an added element of danger should the roof collapse, as it did in Texas.

"There's no question there's more margin of risk in having the frame hold up the fabric rather than the air," he said. "So should anything happen and develop, the worst that could happen [is] the air-supported envelope would just turn into a tarp that would come down very slow."

But air-supported facilities aren't indestructible. In 1998, a balloon facility at the University of Iowa incurred severe weather damage, and the hole in the material proved too big to be repaired quickly. Damian Simcox, the director of athletic facilities at Iowa, said the dome was replaced after that initial damage, and since then, small tears have been fixed more easily. Arizona State University also suffered damage to its air-supported structure in August, and it is in the process of being rebuilt. A few years ago, the practice bubble owned by the New York Giants collapsed because of snow buildup around the air pumps; the Giants are now building a brick-and-mortar facility that should be ready within the next year.

According to Fraioli, who said his company has supplied the Vikings, Broncos, Seahawks, Dolphins, Bills, Giants, Jets and Eagles with air-supported structures, problems with the firm's facilities have never resulted in a major injury.

The Patriots replaced an air-filled structure with a frame-based one in recent years, and team spokesman Stacey James said "it was an upgrade over the old one."

When asked whether the team is concerned about the safety of its current structure, which also was built by Summit Structures, James said, "We're reviewing every aspect of the indoor training facility, but I don't expect we'll comment publicly beyond that."

Texas A&M, another client of Summit, issued a statement on Monday saying that its facility was contracted by a Houston company and that it survived Hurricane Ike this past fall.

"Our buildings withstood the high winds, and our football team was not in the facility at that time [of the hurricane]," said Bill Byrne, the Aggies' director of athletics, in the statement. "This unfortunate accident will cause our staff to evaluate our bad-weather policies. We have a university lightning policy that prohibits our outdoor sports from practicing or playing when the lightning on-campus warning horns go off. Once there is the all clear, then play can resume.

"The safety of our players, coaches, the fans and our staff are our top priority."

[+] EnlargeCowboys Practice Facility
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Cowboys were comfortable in their indoor facility during this August 2006 practice.

In a statement on Monday, Summit Structures spokesman said that proper engineering had been used during the original construction and installation of a new roof at the Cowboys' facility. The federal government is on site in Irving, and Elizabeth Todd, a spokesperson for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said it is investigating the Cowboys for any federal workplace violations. The NFL office will be be informed of the results of the investigation.

"You always have concern when something of this nature happens," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "We will follow developments as they occur."

Norm Reid is the supervisor of athletic facilities for Boston College, which has used an air-filled structure for the past 12 years. Reed said one winter, a bobcat tractor was clearing snow off the ground outside the bubble when the operator ran into the side of the structure, causing a 15-foot hole.

"We put some pieces of plywood until it was patched up and fixed," Reid said. "These things are really strong."

Reid said the Boston College balloon is inflated each December, then taken down every April. He said it's built into four sections, each weighing about 4,000 pounds, and that cables hold down the sections. When Reid saw what happened to the Cowboys' facility this past weekend, he said he turned to his wife and told her he would be getting calls about the one he oversees. He doesn't think BC will make any drastic changes when raising the facility again in the winter.

"I think they're pretty strong," Reid said. "Except the steel ones."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.