Glass balcony panels shatter to sidewalk outside Four Seasons
Owners of the exclusive Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences near Seattle's Pike Place Market are removing all 300 glass balcony railing panels after glass fell from upper floors in three separate incidents.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tempered glass is widely used in construction and other applications because, when broken, it crumbles into small pieces instead of sharp, dangerous shards. But recent incidents at high-rise buildings in Seattle and other cities have shown that it can sometimes shatter spontaneously, if nickel impurities are in the glass.
Laminated glass is more expensive but is safer in automobiles and some construction uses because a polyvinyl resin sandwiched between layers of glass prevents a panel from shattering completely and throwing pieces on people.
When pieces of a shattered glass balcony panel fell 18 stories from one of Seattle's most exclusive addresses, it sounded to one neighbor like a dump truck dropping a load of gravel.
That was in July.
It happened again Sunday, the third time in a year that glass has rained down from condominium balconies at the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences just south of Pike Place Market.
Now the owners are taking out all 300 tempered-glass panels in the building, panels similar to those that fractured and fell this summer at high-rise condos in Austin and Toronto.
"Our only priority here is the safety of everybody involved, either residents or people passing by," said the hotel's general manager, Ben Trodd. "We've taken a very proactive step now. The general contractor is now removing all of the remaining panels that are on the building."
The balconies, all on the condo levels between the 11th and 21st floors, will be closed until new panels or a new railing system are installed.
No one was injured in the three incidents. Falling pieces of glass cracked, but didn't break, five large sections of the glass awning that covers the sidewalk outside the hotel entrance. A car was slightly damaged in the July incident, Trodd said.
"It was a miracle" no one was hurt that Saturday morning because lots of people were walking around, said John Delaney, who lives in a 98 Union building condo that faces the Four Seasons across Union Street. Both buildings are also on First Avenue.
Sunday's incident was reported to the police and fire departments shortly after 6 a.m., when few people were on the street. Glass fragments covered Union Street all the way to the entrance of 98 Union, Delaney said.
Delaney praised the Four Seasons owners for removing the glass panels. "That's the right thing to do given the safety risk," he said.
City building officials weren't aware of any of the incidents until Tuesday, Department of Planning and Development spokesman Bryan Stevens said. Inspectors learned of the two earlier accidents when they went to the Four Seasons to inspect damage this week, he said.
Stevens said city officials didn't ask the hotel and condo management to remove the remaining balcony panels because inspectors didn't think there was "an imminent hazard."
Stevens and Trodd said they don't know why the glass panels disintegrated, but expect an engineering report commissioned by the building owners to shed light on the cause. Trodd said the owners, working with the city and contractor Lease Crutcher Lewis, will come up with a new railing system that "will be tested to be 100 percent safe and reliable."
The Four Seasons, with its commanding views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, is one of Seattle's most exclusive addresses. The 36 condos are priced between $2 million and $10 million, according to the developer's website.
But since it opened during the financial crisis of late 2008, the developer, Seattle Hotel Group, struggled to stay afloat and defaulted on its construction loan in 2009. Four Seasons residents Bruce and Jolene McCaw were part of an investor group that put more cash into the venture and negotiated a restructuring of debt earlier this year.
Three condo towers in Toronto and condos atop the W Austin Hotel removed all their tempered-glass balcony panels after repeated incidents of falling glass, some of which caused minor injuries. They replaced the panels with more expensive but safer laminated glass.
Toro Aluminum Railings, a Vaughan, Ontario, company that installed some of the tempered glass in Toronto, said in a statement Aug. 19 that it welcomes "industrywide discussions" of the safety of tempered-glass railing systems.
An engineering consultant told The Toronto Sun that tempered-glass panels there "exploded" because of nickel sulfide crystal impurities he found in the glass made by U.S. manufacturers.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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