Canopy walk links past, future

Sunday conversation with Mary Pat Matheson

One year ago, a man was killed and 18 other people were injured when an elevated concrete walkway under construction at the Atlanta Botanical Garden plummeted 40 feet to the ground.

The concrete pathway, or Canopy Walk,was to be the longest suspension walkway through a wooded area in the United States. Its construction is part of a larger, grand expansion project that the garden hopes will bring in more visitors.

After much delay, the concrete for the walkway was recently repoured. Here, Atlanta Botanical Garden executive director Mary Pat Matheson talks about healing, lessons learned and looking forward to spring.

Q: So when did you complete the concrete work for the walkway?

A: We poured the concrete on Dec. 10, so that was a big milestone. It is curing now. The next big milestone is the suspension system. When the accident occurred, the platform for the Canopy Walk was on temporary shoring and it's on new temporary shoring now. The next step is installing the big masts [of the suspension system], and that will happen in the next couple of weeks, and suspension will happen in the next four weeks.

Q: It will open to the public on?

A: The first weekend in May.

Q: How will you observe the anniversary of the accident, particularly since a life was lost?

A: The accident is on our minds, and the people who were injured and the family of the man who lost his life, obviously, are in our thoughts and prayers right now. Next year, when we open the Canopy Walk, we're going to have a new garden called the Jonquil Garden and that will be a place to pay tribute to the people who were part of the accident and part of building the project. So, as we look to the anniversary date, one of the things we're doing is I've sent a letter to all of the families involved, telling them they're in our thoughts and our prayers. And we're sending a fresh orchid to all of them so that they know a garden is a place for healing. And, as a part of that, we're sending admission and guest passes to all of them. But we're really being very sensitive, so we're not going to do a memorial service or anything.

Q: Some of the families were immigrant families from Mexico and Central America. How have you kept track of them?

A: We don't have direct contact with the families. When they were in the hospital [after the accident], I was camped out at the hospital and our staff was there. So we were in touch with them then. After all the men went home from the hospital, there are privacy issues. So we aren't in direct contact with them for their addresses and phone numbers. But we're sending the letters and the orchids through the companies [they worked for]. Six men [who were injured] were back on the Canopy Walk when they poured the concrete last week.

Q: Were the men here just to observe the pouring of the concrete, as a symbolic gesture, or were they back at work?

A: They came back and poured it again this time.

Q: Immediately after the accident you started a fund for the families. How much has that raised?

A: Over $100,000.

Q: And how has that been distributed?

A: We approached the United Way and they did the distribution.

Q: I spoke with the Shepherd Center, where at least four of the men received specialized treatment for spinal chord and traumatic brain injury. Some suffered permanent weakness that will cause them to be disabled and not able to do the same sort of work they once did. Did the Botanical Garden offer any financial help to the men for any extended medical treatment?

A: No, that's just not our role. My understanding is that workman's compensation laws take care of being able to work and supplementing income.

Q: Did you talk to the six gentlemen who were accident victims when they poured the concrete again last week?

A: No, I didn't get to talk to them. But you know ... we tried to be really respectful of their privacy.

Q: You have the contract with Hardin Construction to build the Canopy Walk, and they were the general contractor of the walk when it collapsed last year. Last summer, another Atlanta parking deck in which Hardin oversaw construction collapsed. As a result, the University of Georgia stopped considering Hardin for a building project on its Athens campus. So why did you continue to use Hardin after all of this?

A: There's not a company that knows this project better than Hardin. They know it all the way through. And in my opinion this is the nature of a tragic accident. If you look at [Hardin's] history and background, they have a tremendous success rate and safety record.

Q:What will the memorial garden for the accident victims look like?

A: It's circular garden that's underneath the Canopy Walk. It's a component of a larger garden, and it will have a lot of jonquils in it in the early spring and then hydrangeas and summer flowering bulbs. It's in the woods so it's a contemplative garden. It'll be a beautiful garden.

Q: Will there be native plants from the men’s home countries, as a way of honoring them as well?

A: That would be hard, because those are subtropical areas. ... You just have plants that won't be hardy [here].

Q:Does the tragedy taint the project at all, put a damper on it?

A: I don't think so. I've always believed that out of tragedy comes strength. The men who built [the Canopy Walk] have contributed to something that's going to give back to this community for generations ahead. So I look at it as a beautiful legacy. But I will say that we will always remember.

Q: What happens if you’re hit with a lawsuit over this accident?

A: If there are lawsuits, the garden's a client. We conceived a project, hired a firm to build it for us, hired designers to design it for us so we don't believe the garden is...

Q: Responsible?

A: No, not at all.

Q: When the Canopy Walk opens will there be a plaque recognizing the men who were injured and the one who died?

A: Down in the Jonquil Garden, absolutely.