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Metrodome Roof Inflated by Dangerous Air of Uncertainty

Dec 12, 2010 – 7:38 PM
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Joe Lapointe

Joe Lapointe %BloggerTitle%

Metrodome collapse

The videotape of the collapse of the roof in the Metrodome in Minneapolis Sunday resembles in some respects the film of the Hindenburg zeppelin burning in 1937 in Lakehurst, N.J.

The Hindenburg disaster was far worse because 36 people were killed; nobody died or got hurt in the Metrodome Sunday when the roof collapsed under the weight of snow. But the visual records make a similar impact on viewers because they will linger in memory as markers of the end of their eras.

The Hindenburg disaster ended the use of hydrogen-powered airships for passenger travel. The roof collapse at the Metrodome -- the fourth in its history -- showed again why air-supported stadium roofs were a cutting-edge technology of the late 20th Century that quickly came and went.

Sunday's collapse was not the worst such event. Twenty-five years ago, a similar avalanche in a similar stadium -- the Pontiac Silverdome, built by the same general contractor -- could have killed many people if it had occurred seven hours later, during a basketball game.

"That is not a model of a building they are building anymore," said John C. Mozena, a spokesman for the Silverdome, which is north of Detroit. "And there's a reason for that."

Mozena said this last summer after the Silverdome re-opened under new ownership. He was discussing specifically the $1 million per year it costs to heat the roof to keep it up and free of snow and ice.

But roof heat from inside a building is no match for a sustained accumulation of heavy snow, as the Minnesota Vikings and the National Football League learned again Sunday.

The collapse forced them to move the Vikings' game with the New York Giants -- which had already been postponed from Sunday to Monday -- to Detroit, where it will take place at the neutral site of Ford Field, home of the Lions.

"We lost half the roof. The snow actually came down on the court. It exploded like a bomb. Fragments of the court flew up in the air 50 feet."
- Tom Wilson,
Former Pistons President
This is ironic because the Silverdome was also the home of the Lions. Built in 1975 primarily for football, it also became the home of the Pistons of the National Basketball Association in 1978.

Tom Wilson, who was then the president of the Pistons, recalled how heavily it was snowing on March 4, 1985, when he tried to get the NBA to postpone that night's game against Milwaukee.

"They were pushing back, asking how bad could it really be?" Wilson recalled in a telephone interview from Michigan.

That became apparent during the phone call when the air-supported roof buckled and collapsed under the weight of the snow.

"Ours was much worse than the one in Minneapolis,'' Wilson said. "We lost half the roof. The snow actually came down on the court. It exploded like a bomb. Fragments of the court flew up in the air 50 feet."

Wilson was watching from the window of his office, which overlooked the basketball court and the football field as he spoke by phone to the league office in New York.

"The player benches were probably the center point of the explosion," Wilson said. "It also hit the stands. The seats were flying, they were destroyed. It was like an avalanche."

Had a game been in progress, Wilson said, fans and players would have been killed. "No question," Wilson said. "The floor was in splinters."

Ten minutes before the collapse, Wilson said, several Detroit Lions were passing the football in an off-season workout on the other side of the curtain that separated the basketball court from the rest football field.

Because the roof could not be repaired quickly, the Pistons were forced to move the rest of their home games that season to downtown Detroit, primarily to Joe Louis Arena.

There is an added irony to this in that Wilson left the Pistons earlier this year and now works for Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings. Ilitch is trying to buy the Pistons and move them from the Palace of Auburn Hills to a new arena in downtown Detroit.

Another irony is that indoor football stadiums were built in cold-weather climates to allow games to proceed in poor weather. Had the Vikings continued to play in an outdoor stadium, as they did before 1982, they would have been able to play Sunday.

Other stadiums with air-supported roofs have come and gone in recent decades, including one in Indianapolis abandoned by the Colts. But sturdier roof structures are no guarantee of stability.

A hurricane ripped the roof in the New Orleans Superdome in 2005 and forced the Saints to move. Smaller arenas in Hartford and Philadelphia suffered roof damage due to weather.

But Wilson said supporting a roof with air pressure creates a peculiar kind of risk that architects now shun.

"You have to keep the roof really warm so the snow will melt and roll off,'' Wilsons said. "If you get a little inversion, all the water and wet snow and slush starts pocketing in a low spot."

This effect multiplies, Wilson said, because the weight builds up in the low spot, creating danger.

"It just gets worse and worse and worse,'' Wilson said. "What you saw in Minnesota was the fabric tearing and when it goes, you've got all this air pressure that escapes and the snow just cascades down."

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