A woman was seriously injured Thursday morning when her car breached steel retention cables ringing a downtown Austin parking garage and plunged seven stories – the second time in less than a year that has happened at the same garage, officials confirmed.
City officials said later Thursday that the earlier incident had sparked no comprehensive city review of the 38-year-old parking structure and the cable safety system, but an Austin City Council member said this second occurrence justifies a harder look from officials.
Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services officials said the driver in Thursday’s incident, a woman whom police didn’t identify, was taken to Dell Seton Medical Center with serious injuries. Austin police Cpl. Chris Carlisle said the woman had been “alert and conscious with what we are told are non-life-threatening injuries” when she left the accident scene in an ambulance. Hospital officials later declined to provide an update on her condition, citing federal privacy laws.
The incident happened about 8:30 a.m. in the alley behind 508 Brazos St., which sits on the southwest corner of East Sixth and Brazos streets. The parking decks in that garage, rather than having concrete retaining walls on each floor, instead have five half-inch-wide steel cables strung between concrete pillars. There is 8 to 9 inches of clearance between each cable, which according to the International Building Code is designed to withstand a 6,000-pound static load.
A statement issued Thursday by garage owner GTT Parking LP said “the car apparently hit the barriers at a rate of speed sufficient to break-through and hit the building across the alley” at 515 Congress Ave.
The black, midsized sedan then landed atop the rear end of a Chevy Tahoe that was northbound in the alley, Carlisle said. The sedan, which breached a gas line on one of the buildings on its way down, then came to rest on its top side. Carlisle said the supply to the gas line was quickly turned off.
Passers-by, including Tahoe driver William Burch, rushed to pull the injured woman from the car.
“I was pretty startled,” Burch said. “I immediately realized I was OK, and I jumped out to help them get her out.”
GTT Parking said Thursday’s incident occurred on a different floor than the similar incident Sept. 9, when an SUV went over the edge and was caught on a dangling cable for hours. The statement said the building was constructed in 1979, rather than 1981 as officials had previously said.
“We regret the unfortunate incident that happened today in our garage and are thankful that no lives were lost,” the statement from GTT Parking spokesman Jason Meeker said, adding that the two recent incidents are the only time in the building’s history that a car has breached the wires.
“After the previous incident, we engaged a structural engineer to review the situation, and repairs to the safety barriers were performed according to his recommendation,” Meeker said. “The city of Austin permitted and inspected such repairs to their satisfaction.”
Unlike that earlier incident, in which the cables broke, Carlisle said the car on Thursday somehow “went through the wires. They’re still there.”
Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 includes downtown, told the American-Statesman that she had talked to Austin Code Department officials in the wake of Thursday’s incident to see what the follow-up had been on last September’s incident.
“To have two cars drive off the same parking garage is very alarming,” Tovo said. “I would anticipate that our Development Services and Code Departments would be looking at the garage and determining if safety changes are needed.”
Austin Code Department spokeswoman Candice Cooper said the department’s job is to enforce building codes as written.
“At the end of the day, it really is that property owner’s responsibility to ensure the maintenance of the property,” Cooper said. “I don’t know that there’s a department of the city where that responsibility lies.”
Last September, 23-year-old William O’Connor was unhurt but shaken after his Toyota 4Runner plunged from the garage’s top level while he was on his way to the nearby Gold’s Gym. The broken cables wrapped around his tires and the vehicle came to rest just a couple of floors below where it left the parking deck. It dangled from the garage for several hours, captivating a downtown audience. O’Connor was safely rescued.
Sylvia Arzola, a spokeswoman with the city’s Planning and Development Review Department, said the city had done no study or report on the parking garage in the wake of last year’s incident.
The city did file a code violation complaint on Sept. 14, 2016, a few days after O’Connor’s ordeal, against GTT Parking. The short case history associated with that complaint lists David Kahn as an owner of Colina West, which appears to be the parent company of GTT Parking.
The case history describes the violation as “unsafe conditions … the following exterior conditions(s) barrier cable systems are unsafe: broken loose damaged.”
The owner obtained a permit for repairs, the city document says, including a letter from an engineer. The complaint was listed as closed on Oct. 27 “due to voluntary compliance.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correctly describe the distance between the steel cables along the side of the parking garage.