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Seismic Panel: Reinforce Marriott Library

January 16, 2004 — The Utah Seismic Safety Commission voted unanimously Friday to support the University of Utah’s request to the state Legislature for $45 million to reinforce Marriott Library so it will not collapse and kill numerous people during a moderate to major earthquake.

The vote also expressed the commission’s willingness to support retrofitting other state-owned buildings that may be vulnerable to quakes in addition to Marriott Library.

“We are grateful that the Seismic Safety Commission acknowledges the tremendous risk the building poses to thousands of university students and employees,” said Nancy Lyon, the university’s assistant vice president for government affairs.

“They recognize the time is now to take care of this very dangerous situation,” Lyon added. “We hope legislators recognize the urgency of our request as way to save many lives during a serious earthquake.”

A 2002 building evaluation found several deficiencies in the Marriott Library’s ability to withstand earthquakes – most notably that even a moderate, magnitude-5 quake centered nearby could cause concrete floors to detach from steel support columns, causing the entire building to collapse, with each floor “pancaking” onto the floor below. As little as one inch of horizontal motion could make the building collapse, the study concluded.

As a result, one of the University of Utah’s top priorities during the 2004 Utah legislative session is to secure $45 million in state bond funds to help renovate Marriott Library. The university is raising another $18 million in private funding for the renovation, which not only would brace Marriott Library to resist earthquakes, but also would upgrade 35-year-old plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems.

The Utah Seismic Safety Commission endorsed the university’s request during its Friday meeting after hearing from university representatives, including Lyon and Marriott Library Director Sarah Michalak.

“I am grateful for the action of the commission,” Michalak said. This will help ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff of the university and citizens of the state of Utah.”

Barry Welliver, a structural engineer who chairs the Utah Seismic Safety Commission, said the 2002 report on the Marriott Library “identified serious seismic deficiencies which place the occupants at significant risk during an earthquake. The recognition of this danger and the possible loss of life are the motivations for the commission to recommend improvements to this building as soon as feasible.”

Walter Arabasz, a member of the Seismic Safety Commission, did not vote because he is an employee of the University of Utah, where he directs the Seismograph Stations. He acknowledged some members’ concern that the commission should not ignore priorities set by the Utah State Building Board, which bases its rankings on many factors beyond seismic safety. But in the end, the university’s request for an endorsement of the Marriott Library renovation “is a timely opportunity for the commission to step up to its charge from the Legislature to identify earthquake safety issues,” Arabasz said.

Marriott Library – which is located less than a mile from the Wasatch fault – was built in 1969, with an addition in 1996. The bulk of the library – which is the 1969 portion – was identified as vulnerable to collapse in the 2002 engineering study.

“Without seismic improvements, the potential for catastrophic loss of life is huge,” according to a mailing issued recently by Friends of the Marriott Library.

About 7,000 students, faculty, library employees and others visit the building on a typical weekday – with many more during the week before finals – and 3,000 to 4,000 people are often in the building at any given time.

In addition, the library houses collections of books and other materials worth $300 million, including many irreplaceable original manuscripts and rare books. Examples include leaves from the Gutenberg Bible and the original Book of Mormon, and a copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s 1687 book “Principia,” which outlines the laws of gravity and planetary motion and is worth an estimated $200,000 to $350,000.