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The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.)

 

Duke basketball officials last week said the university has removed its "crow's nest" seating at Cameron Indoor Stadium due to safety concerns.

The crow's nest, a tight structure "very similar to a catwalk" that hung from the ceiling and was tucked into the rafters at center court above fans at Duke men's basketball's home arena, was accessible only by portable metal ladders that were removed and placed inside the structure once games started.

Positioned about eight feet above the seating area, the three-section structure had three ladders, one for each section, and was used by the university as "specialty seating" for auction winners and to house television and radio broadcasters, along with other reporters and video operators during games. Getting in or out of the crow's nest meant climbing up and down the metal steps, which were angled so users could climb them facing either forward or backwards.

Asked last January how people in the crow's nest would exit the structure in the event of an emergency, Duke basketball spokesman Jon Jackson wrote in an email, "the usher and game operations personnel would go to those spaces and assist with portable stairs and direct egress, if necessary."

The broadcasters and others who were seated in the crow's nest were responsible for lowering the ladders themselves or ask for help from Duke staff to make the area accessible, according to Jackson. Each ladder was placed in the booth at game time and lowered again at the game's halftime. The ladders were put back in the booth at the start of the second half, too.

"Because the portable stairs are placed in the booths during game action, they can lower themselves as needed or they can request assistance from game operations personnel," Jackson wrote in an email to The News & Observer in February. "In an emergency scenario, the usher and game operations personnel would go to those spaces and assist with portable stairs and direct egress."

A Duke staff member remained in the area below the crow's nest specifically to aid with the ladders if someone needed to leave the booth. The bottoms of the ladders rested on an aisle, meaning it would have blocked fans sitting below the crows' nest from leaving if the ladders were always left in the down position. That would have violated fire codes.

"Duke must place the portable stairs in the space at the user's control and not block the egress path for the seating area (below)," Jackson wrote in February.

The number of people who used the space during each game varied "based on need, but we do not maximize capacity due to cameras, cases, and other personal needs of occupants," Jackson wrote.

Mike Cragg, Duke's deputy athletic director in charge of facilities said Duke's decision to remove the crow's nest, which the university says has been around since at least the 1970s, came from a "self-study" of its game-day procedures. He said the school received guidance from federal safety officials as well as the city of Durham.

Cragg said a review of Cameron as part of the athletic facilities upgrades going on at Duke led the school to make changes this summer.

"It was not an ideal setting by any stretch," Cragg said of the crow's nest. "We are doing so much stuff it was a good time to address it."

Temporary structure and inspections

Jody Morton, interim fire marshal for the City of Durham, said Cameron Indoor has passed annual safety inspections, the most recent on July 3. City records show permits were approved to remove the old crow's nest and replace it with the current temporary structure on July 21. On Sept. 8, the temporary structure, which is on the ground instead of in the rafters, passed its building inspection. It has yet to be receive its fire inspection and will need to do so before basketball season, Morton said.

Morton, who's been with the Durham Fire Department since 1990 and conducted inspections for 15 years, has inspected Cameron and the crow's nest more than once.

According to regulations, the crow's nest had to be in compliance with the fire safety standards that were set at the time it was built as long as it was still being used for its intended purpose, Morton said. Now that the crow's nest has been torn down, the new structure will have to meet the current fire code. The latest code went into effect in 2012 and a new code will begin in 2018, Morton said.

The temporary structure has wood podiums at the top of the arena, near center court and in one corner.

Broadcast teams and other media will use those areas, accessible by steps, during games this season before a new structure to house those people is constructed in 2018.

"We are in a one-year temporary tear down and rebuild to meet new safety standards," Cragg wrote in a text message last week. "We felt it needed an upgrade in what was once a temporary solution."

The new permanent structure, expected to be completed by next basketball season, will be equipped with permanent steps, Cragg said.

Cragg said the 77-year-old, 9,314-seat arena could lose approximately 30 seats when the renovation is completed.

Broadcasters' experiences

Former Duke radio announcer Bob Harris looks over the FSU roster in the crow's nest at Cameron Indoor Stadium Feb. 28, 2017. Citing safety concerns, Duke removed the crow's nest this summer.

ESPN's Dick Vitale said he once slipped climbing the crow's nest ladder only to be saved from injury when some fans grabbed and steadied him. Another time, while calling a a Duke-North Carolina game in the mid-90s, he leaped from his chair in excitement only to hit his head and open a bleeding wound.

"I know I've had a couple of situations up there," Vitale said Monday during a telephone interview.

Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player who is now an attorney and ESPN college basketball analyst, started his broadcasting career working alongside former Duke play-by-play radio broadcaster Bob Harris in the crows' nest in the 1990s.

He knew some who sat up there had safety concerns about the structure, but the 6-8 Bilas said he managed just fine.

"I don't care one way or another," Bilas said. "I heard talk about safety issues and heard there were talks. I'm always a believer that safety for our crew is important but that's not my area of expertise. I've done games in all kinds of spots all over the country. I can adjust."

Harris on Tuesday also said he's had a scary crow's nest incident. In the late 1970s or early 1980s, a wooden ladder was used instead of a metal one. Harris said he started down the ladder, but because it wasn't set correctly on the bottom, it fell and narrowly missed hitting a woman sitting below. Harris was left hanging by his arms from the floor of the crow's nest, until people below could get him down safely.

"It is a little tough sometimes," Harris said. "But I got used to it. I wore out several pairs of shoes doing it. But when you are up there, you've got everything that's going to happen right in front of you. No one is going to stand up in front of you. You are not going to hear a lot of people yelling in your ear like you do when you were on the floor. I just thought it was the best venue in the country."

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

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