Archive for Sunday, October 30, 2005

Residence hall falls have left scars

School officials want to prevent more tragedies

October 30, 2005


Matthew Ward doesn't walk barefoot outdoors.

"The bottom of my left foot is just really screwed up," he said. "If I just step on a tiny minuscule pebble, it hurts."

The pain lingers from an incident nearly five years ago when Ward, then a Kansas University freshman, fell out a window on the eighth floor of Hashinger Hall.

He wasn't the first nor the last student to fall from a KU residence hall. In September 2003, freshman Eric J. Wellhausen, Mount Prospect, Ill., died after falling from his seventh-floor room at Oliver Hall. His parents recently filed a wrongful death suit against the university.

The university has received the suit, said Andrew Protzman of the Overland Park firm Shapiro & Protzman, which is representing the Wellhausens. He said he expected the university to file its answer within the next four or five weeks.

Ward never graduated from KU. He now lives in North Carolina and cares for his father.

"I'm not even half-way done with school," he said. "I'm a late bloomer."

Looking back, Ward sees an immature young man. In high school, he'd breezed through the gifted program, but college required an effort he wasn't used to.

He lived in Hashinger, a dorm he recalls as big.

"I just don't think I was ready for college at the time," he said.

One May morning, after 1 a.m., Ward was hanging out on the eighth floor of Hashinger. He'd been drinking.

His friends were standing on a porch on the building's third floor, which is the main floor.

"I decided it would be funny to talk to them from the window sill," he said.

Ward slipped off the screen, stepped on a heater and lifted his body into the window. He was trying to be cool, he said, yelling down to his friends below.

Ward doesn't remember all of what happened next.

He believes a young woman came into the room, and both were startled. Ward slid out the window and plummeted down head first, his back facing the building, he said.

As Ward believes it happened, his hands caught onto the fifth-story ledge. He tumbled around and slammed into a balcony overhang. He was barefoot. The balcony was covered with quarter-sized rocks.

"My freshman year ended right there," he said.

Ward shattered his left heel, tore several tendons and crushed his ankle. He had a compound fracture of his right leg and spent three months in bed. To get around, he used a wheelchair or crawled on the floor.

Ward took online classes for a while. He eventually returned to school.

Many of his friends had moved on.

"What I regret more than anything is the fact that all those close bonds I formed that first year were fractured," he said.

Ward left again in June to be close to his father, who has cancer.

A month after Wellhausen's death, KU housing officials announced they would put warning stickers on all dormitory windows. The stickers would say that students would have to pay a $125 fine if the screen was removed.

A second sticker was placed on the screen and window frame. If students tampered with the screen, the sticker would break.

"We continue to search for any additional steps we can take," KU spokeswoman Lynn Bretz said.

Bretz said the university was always searching for the best way to explain to students that alcohol consumption impairs judgment.

Bretz said of the hundreds of dorm rooms, four stickers were removed last year.

The stickers are meant to prevent incidents like the one involving Ward, or the earlier 2001 incident when two 19-year-old students fell while taking smoking breaks outside their rooms. Months after Ward's incident, Saad Saifeddine, a freshman from Morocco, fell from the fourth floor of McCollum Hall, suffering minor injuries.

Previous to Wellhausen's 2003 death, Scott McWhorter, a freshman from Dallas, fell from the fourth floor of Corbin Hall in 1994. Authorities suspected he had been sleepwalking when he kicked out the screen from the room's window.

Ward said he doesn't blame the university for what happened to him. He was young and on his own for the first time, reckless and irresponsible, he said.

"I don't know if it's the university's fault," he said. "I don't blame them for what happened to me. : I don't think that having windows that can be opened should be considered dangerous."


Merry 12 years, 4 months ago

What exactly was the point of this article?

Jamesaust 12 years, 4 months ago

So in "four or five weeks" when the KU response in the Wellhausen suit is filed, LJW is going to reprint this 'history of dorm falls' again?

sterlingice 12 years, 4 months ago

It's hard to feel sorry for some moron whose troubles stem from getting drunk and taking a dive off Hash. How about not getting drunk and walking out on balconies?

jayhawks71 12 years, 4 months ago

I find it reprehensible that the family is suing the University of "wrongful death." Let's take the legal system of out equation. If someone fails to keep up something they are responsible for and in ORDINARY USE of that area/item someone is harmed because of a failure to maintain the area/item, then yes, they have some level of responsibility for harm done to someone provided the person who is harmed was there with the consent of the property owner.

In this case, a kid climbed out of a window and onto a ledge. This is not the ORDINARY USE of the window ledge by ANY stretch of the imagination. I am going to assume that part of the family's claim is negligence. How is the university negligent in any way shape or form because they didn't take EXTRAORDINARY measures to seal this window so that nothing gets in or out? A window (and its screen!) by its very purpose allows SOMETHING in and out (light, air, etc.)

Would the family have sued KU if someone had sprayed a chemical in the air and having the window open allowed the chemical into the room, causing harm to the occupants? Yeah, they probably would have.

Give me a break. I FELT sorry for the family in this tragedy, now I only feel sorry for the young man. This family is the epitome of greed and irresponsibility (blame someone else!)

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