Husky Stadium grandstand collapse rocked Montlake in 1987

Feb 27, 2019, 10:09 AM | Updated: 10:38 am

Husky Stadium, dance...

Husky Stadium. (Feliks Banel, KIRO Radio)

(Feliks Banel, KIRO Radio)

In late February 1987, a new north grandstand was taking shape above the old “bowl” of 1920s-vintage Husky Stadium along Montlake Boulevard.

By sometime around February 18, the first of nine huge trusses with cantilevered roof beams were standing tall at the east end of the stadium. The second truss followed soon after, and workers were bolting and welding steel in place where seats and roof decking would be installed.

The design of the grandstand was the work of the late John B. Skilling, well-known Seattle engineer who helped design, among other projects, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

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Lydig Construction of Spokane was about three months into the $13 million project to add the new north grandstand, with its thousands of additional seats to accommodate even more rabid Dawg fans in the middle of the Coach Don James era.

On the morning of February 25, 1987, ironworkers from a subcontractor called Canron Construction were getting ready to install truss number three.

Project superintendent for Lydig was 47-year old Wally Sharpe. It was around 9:30 a.m. on that otherwise ordinary Wednesday when it became clear that something was wrong.

“Ed Griffin, my assistant superintendent, he’d come to me and said the ironworkers weren’t up on the structure working, that there was some problem,” Sharpe said from his home in Spokane.

“And so I had to go find out, and get the guys out. I said, ‘I don’t want to take any chances.’ And then it come back that there was a bulge on one of the trusses where a temporary connection was holding the truss up, and so we cleared the stadium, and we cleared the work site,” Sharpe said.

The truss that was bulging was a 28-inch diameter cylindrical piece of steel that held up the cantilevered roof and, by extension, was key to the whole structure that was being built.

Sharpe knew right away that they had a potentially dangerous situation on their hands, and that there was no time to lose.

Once Sharpe and assistant superintendent Ed Griffin were sure that all 60, or so, Lydig, Canron and other workers from other subcontractors were off the stadium, Sharpe called his boss in Spokane, the project manager for Lydig, whose name was Larry Swartz.

By this time, it was 10 a.m.  As he was speaking to Larry Swartz, Wally Sharpe remembered that there were likely to be a half-dozen or so University of Washington maintenance workers taking their coffee break in a structure that everyone called “the barn.”

Where was the barn? Directly under the east end of the ailing grandstand structure.

“I was on the phone at 10 o’clock with Larry Swartz and said that we had trouble, and I realized that was break time,” Sharpe said. “And so I run down there and told the guys to get out, and literally they backed the truck out [and away from the barn], and the dust hit us [as the structure came down].”

Husky Stadium comes down

Thanks to Wally Sharpe and Ed Griffin, the UW maintenance workers, and everyone working for Lydig and their subcontractors, had gotten out and away in time. Incredibly, no one was killed or injured in the collapse, which was captured in a series of brilliant still images by late photographer John Stamets (that he later packaged and sold as a very popular souvenir).

And what did it look like and sound like as all that steel crashed to the ground?

“I think we just stood there in awe because we were like 50 feet, 60 feet north [of the grandstand] on the road going down to the maintenance barn,” Sharpe said. “I don’t remember any real loud noises or anything, I’m sure there was, but it was lost in all of the other things that all of a sudden had to be done, and I’m at a loss for words because I don’t remember any noise.”

The things that had to be done, according to Wally Sharpe, included getting the electricity shut off so a spark didn’t cause a fire and accounting for damaged welding tanks that might be at risk of exploding, plus calling families of workers to let them know that everybody was okay.

And what about the noise of all that steel succumbing to gravity?

Wally Sharpe says he knows that other people, including assistant superintendent Ed Griffin, say that the collapse did make a pretty big sound. To this reporter, who was sitting in an English class in the Electrical Engineering building on the edge of the bluff just north and west of the stadium, it sounded like a jetliner taking off from Montlake Boulevard; to a relative in a UW building farther north along the bluff, it sounded like a giant load of metal pipes being dumped off an enormous flatbed truck.

Meanwhile, Larry Swartz, the project manager, quickly arranged to fly over to Seattle from Spokane along with company owner, the late Paul Lydig. Swartz was just 30 years old at the time, and he said that as the car from the airport approached Montlake, his thoughts were racing.

“As you can imagine, there was a lot of stuff going through my mind at the time,” Swartz said Monday from Lydig offices in Spokane. “I knew that we were not going to see what had been there just the day before when I took my wife to dinner for her birthday and was so excited about the fact that the stadium was really starting to take shape.”

With the collapse of the grandstand, Swartz, who’s now the CEO of Lydig, says he “went from this super high level of excitement to ‘What are we going to do now?’”

What they did

What they did was focus on figuring out what went wrong in order to prevent it from happening again. Then, the focus shifted to regrouping in order to get the stadium finished in time for football season, and to not force the Huskies to take up temporary residence in the old Kingdome.

It’s clear, more than 30 years later, that both Wally Sharpe and Larry Swartz are can-do guys who were all about making the best of a tough situation. In the aftermath of the collapse, all the usual investigations took place to figure out what had gone wrong, and both remember the months that followed as an exhausting yet ultimately exhilarating experience in coming together to solve a big problem and meet a deadline for a client.

Surprisingly, Larry Swartz says that there were no lawsuits filed by any individual or entity, and everyone involved cooperated to the extreme in order to try and get the stadium ready for the Huskies to take on Stanford in the season opener on September 5, 1987.

And Swartz says that in spite of all those investigations, it’s never been determined definitively what happened that made the partially completed grandstand collapse. Wally Sharpe believes there was miscommunication between the ironworkers on the project and their company offices in Canada. One theory that many agree on is most likely what happened — temporary guywires that had been supporting the structure were mistakenly detached so that a crane could be moved in to erect the third truss.

With no deaths or injuries, a lot of people consider Wally Sharpe a hero for the steps that he and Ed Griffin took that morning back in 1987. Sharpe is 79 now and he’s pretty humble. He began working in construction as a 13-year old during summer vacations, and retired less than a decade ago. He says the whole thing was really a team effort.

“I’m proud that there wasn’t anybody killed or hurt,” Sharpe said. “And then obviously proud that we were able to play the first football game there, too. I think it was a pretty good accomplishment for all of us. It wasn’t just me. There was lots and lots of people involved. And the tradesmen committed just as much as management did.”

As it turned out, the Huskies beat Stanford in that season opener on September 5, 1987 with Chris Chandler as quarterback. They also won the Apple Cup there in November 1987, and ultimately went to the Independence Bowl in December and beat Tulane.

The recovery and rebuild of the grandstand structure had one more significant silver lining for Lydig, Larry Swartz said.

It went so well and received so much positive attention, Swartz says that this snatching victory from the jaws of defeat gave Lydig the boost it needed to open an office in Bellevue within six months of the grandstand being completed. The Bellevue office, Swartz says, is now responsible for about half their annual volume of work and has been almost from day one.

But as for adopting this business strategy for expanding into a new market, Swartz emphatically says that he wouldn’t exactly recommend this “collapse-and-rebuild” approach.

More from Feliks Banel.


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Husky Stadium grandstand collapse rocked Montlake in 1987