When Christi Bowmer set out for work on July 13, she was excited about getting a free pass to park in a parking garage so close to her workplace.
Typically a rail commuter from Cedar Park, Bowmer on that day had plans after work that would be more convenient with a car, so she drove her black BMW 328i hard-top convertible downtown. Bowmer, 49, told the American-Statesman that it meant she could wear her black heels because of the short walk from the garage to her office in the Omni Building, where she works in human resources management.
It also meant that she would be parking high up on a downtown parking structure. And that she soon would be fighting for her life.
At about 8:30 a.m., Austin police were alerted that Bowmer’s car had driven off the garage’s seventh floor, smashed into the building opposite the narrow downtown alley, then went into a terrifying nosedive, colliding with another vehicle and nearly killing Bowmer.
“I went straight down, and I watched myself in slow motion,” Bowmer told the Statesman. “I thought I was going to die.”
At first glance, the incident appeared to be a freak accident. A police report indicated that a witness in the parking garage saw Bowmer’s vehicle accelerate forward over a parking curb and through the steel cables meant to stop cars from going over the edge. Bowmer later told an officer she believed she must have mistakenly hit the accelerator instead of the brake and broke through the cables, the report said.
But it was the second time in less than a year that a vehicle drove through steel cables and over the side of the Littlefield Garage, located at East Sixth and Brazos streets.
Memo: City found no sign of repairs
The two incidents shined a spotlight on permitting rules in Austin that allow structures like parking garages to face little oversight once their plans get the go-ahead from the city. In the case of the Littlefield Garage, the building was still being held to the 1976 code standards from when it was permitted in 1979.
Additionally, a Statesman review of code enforcement documents showed that after the first incident summoned city inspectors to the garage to investigate, officials only looked at the portion of the garage’s ninth floor where that driver went overboard, took a certified engineer’s word as proof the repairs had been made and then closed the case.
But after Bowmer’s car went over the side of the building last month, city records show, inspectors found that any repairs made after the 2016 incident were never given permits by the city — and that it appeared that no repairs had been done. The city’s more complete review of the facility found that several areas of the garage’s cable-system railings failed to even meet the 1976 code standards, and that loose cables were found in several locations in the garage.
“Per our visit and observation on the cables on the ninth floor, it does not appear that the cables were replaced and are loose,” city building official José Roig wrote to a Code Enforcement investigator in a July 20 email obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.
Bowmer is now pursuing legal action in the incident, though no lawsuit has been filed yet.
A request for comment from parking garage owner GTT Parking LP wasn’t returned because the owner was out of the country and unreachable by phone, company spokesman Jason Meeker said.
But the day of Bowmer’s crash, the company said that “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. The city of Austin permitted and inspected such repairs to their satisfaction.”
City doesn’t initiate inspections
Bowmer said the fact that two incidents occurred at that garage makes her worry about the safety of all parking garages in Austin.
“Now I’m worried about anywhere that I park,” she said. “I’m sure there are others just like it.”
Code Enforcement spokeswoman Isis Lopez said that, apart from inspecting short-term rentals, the city’s response to any issues with buildings is largely complaint-based. Inspectors don’t initiate periodic checks on buildings. To do so would be a massive undertaking even if it was just limited to parking structures — 534 have been permitted in the city since 1979. And privacy issues could arise if Code Enforcement suddenly started reviewing residences, Lopez said.
Lopez confirmed that after the 2016 incident, in which a 23-year-old man drove over the edge of the garage’s ninth floor and would have plummeted to the ground if not for one of the cables wrapping around a tire, staff only looked at the ninth-floor bays near where William O’Connor’s Toyota 4Runner SUV drove off the side of the garage.
Since Bowmer’s crash, the garage’s owner has reinforced all cable barriers by placing plastic water-filled barriers in front of every parking spot.
The company is working to overhaul the entire cable system to bring it up to the latest code standards, Lopez said. The area where Bowmer’s car went through the barrier remains closed. But Bowmer said that if those repairs had been made earlier, it might have spared her from serious injuries that nearly claimed her life.
A miraculous recovery
Two arterial hemorrhages in her head nearly killed her, Bowmer said. She also suffered a broken back, broken leg, broken ankle and a broken sternum.
She said her recovery has been miraculous. Despite all the injuries, she is already walking, but cannot stand for long periods of time. The pain is still a major issue, and she hasn’t returned to work, relying upon her husband, Jay Bowmer, to perform even some of the most menial tasks.
And there’s her hair.
To get at the hemorrhages in her head, doctors had to cut off larges patches of her shoulder-length blonde hair. Now, her closely cropped locks are edgier than the self-described “sheltered” “country girl” would prefer. But her hair will grow back.
Besides calling on the city and parking garages to work to prevent incidents like hers from occurring, Bowmer said she was thankful to all the passers-by, paramedics, police and other medical professionals who helped her get through the traumatic aftermath.
There was William Burch, the man whose SUV Bowman struck when her car crashed into the ground. There’s the person who dialed Bowmer’s husband while she was lying covered in blood, giving her a chance to say what she thought might be a final goodbye. And there’s the man who prayed at her side.
“I know you all saved my life,” Bowmer said. “They were just amazing.”