Stair failure was third in three years at New London complex

New London - This month's fatal stairway collapse marked the third year in a row that a stair problem at Nutmeg Woods apartments has resulted in injuries, city records show.

People were taken to the hospital as a result of incidents in both 2011 and 2012, according to records provided by the city's fire marshal's office.

There is no evidence, however, that a full structural inspection of the complex's wooden porch system was conducted between the 2012 collapse and the one on Oct. 21, when 32-year-old Jonathan Deptulski of Uncasville fell to his death when a stairway at the rear of 23 Hawthorne Drive North gave way beneath him.

Fire Marshal Calvin Darrow, in a short email to retired City Building Official Jack Cipriano and other city officials on the day after the 2012 stairway collapse, said that collapse was the second stairway failure under the same property management company.

"The rear stairs throughout may need structural inspections," he wrote in the 2012 email.

Darrow said 23 Hawthorne Drive North was among other Nutmeg Woods apartment buildings inspected by the fire marshal's office on March 21, 2012. The reports filed at the time of the inspections indicate, "No code violations were identified." It was not, however, a structural inspection, which is a more in-depth assessment.

The Sept. 10, 2011, incident, which is the source of a pending lawsuit, occurred at the rear of 158 Hawthorne Drive when the fire department arrived to find two patients injured in what was described as a single stair tread failure.

On May 28, 2012, the fire department was called to the rear of 46 Hawthorne Drive North to tend to a person injured in a stairwell collapse. The rear porch stairs connecting the first floor with the ground level landing broke away from the lower landing, causing the collapse and fall, according to the fire marshal's report. The stair section was hanging from the upper deck when firefighters arrived.

The 2012 incident appears to be similar to this month's collapse, where an entire set of stairs between the second and third floor porches could be seen in pieces on the ground level landing where Deptulski was treated for a severe head injury.

Nutmeg Woods is now in the process of getting a structural engineer to complete a full assessment of all of the stairs throughout the complex, according to Building Official Kirk Kripas. Proposed repairs, which potentially could include a complete rebuild, will go through the building department for approval.

The full assessment follows what Kripas said were recent emergency-type repairs, such as additional metal strapping and joist hangers for stairways, added following an initial walk-through of the complex by building and fire officials who were joined by a structural engineer. The inspection was conducted to identify areas of concern, paying particular attention to the structural integrity of the stairways and the strap and joist hanger system used to tie the stairways to the porches.

The repairs were made to ease concerns and avoid what might have resulted in a temporary condemnation of other parts of the complex, Kripas said. Each apartment must have two exits, so any problems that resulted in the closing of a porch entrance would have resulted in a condemnation.

Darrow said inspections of multi-unit buildings are supposed to be done every year in order to follow state fire safety code. That, however, is not possible in New London and in many other municipalities where there is just not enough manpower, he said. In New London, he said, a multi-unit building is more likely to have an inspection every five years or so, or when a complaint is received. Three people, including Darrow, work in the fire marshal's office.

Kripas said the building department is still researching the history of construction at the complex, such as the age of the porch system.

A representative from Nutmeg Woods, which is owned by Ansonia Acquisitions 1 LLC, was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

g.smith@theday.com

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