(1989: East Coldenham Elementary School)

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Building: East Coldenham Elementary
Location: Newburgh, NY
Year of construction: 1959
Year of failure: 1989
Type of failure: Exterior wall collapse

November 16th 1989 12:30 pm.

During a large storm, tornado force winds blew against a wall section of the cafeteria during lunchtime at East Coldenham Elementary School in Newburgh, NY. The high pressure caused by the winds against the wall section caused the wall to collapse in on the cafeteria.

“Shards of glass flew across the cafeteria; seconds later, the entire wall collapsed.” said Principal Harvey Gregory, who had been in the cafeteria at the time of the accident. [a]

Dining tables and chairs hurtled through the air as an entire wall of concrete blocks and glass crashed down, striking and burying the children. Out of the more than 120 students that were in the cafeteria at the time, most between 7 and 8 years old, 9 children were killed and dozens of others were injured.[b]

The wall was a cavity-type wall composed of a 4-inch exterior veneer of bricks, a 2-inch air cavity and 8-inch concrete blocks on the inside. The concrete blocks had no interior reinforcement. The wall was approximately 40 feet wide, 25 feet tall and was surrounded on all sides by windows set in aluminum mullions. With this setup the wall had a fixed support at the bottom and virtually no lateral support on the top. As the wind blew down on the wall, the moment at the cantilevered support at the bottom of the wall exceeded the cracking stress in the concrete and the entire wall cracked along the bottom edge and fell in on the cafeteria. [c]

If the wall had lateral support at the top and/or interior steel reinforcement then the collapse would not have happened. The cantilevered wall with no interior reinforcement could not withstand the tornado force winds and was bound to collapse.

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