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Planters averted worse damage at museum

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The UPS truck that smashed into a lobby window of the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum plowed through five of the building's 1,200-pound cement security planters, but the planters slowed the runaway vehicle and prevented more damage, officials said Tuesday.

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The Monday night incident, in which the delivery truck inexplicably careened off Independence Avenue SW, flattened a decorative street light and smacked into the museum, remain under investigation, Smithsonian and UPS spokesmen said.

The driver, who was not identified, was treated and released from a hospital Monday night, said UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg. "He's got some cuts and bruises," she said. "Fortunately, our driver is going to be fine and there were no other people involved."

Although apparently an accident, the crash seems likely to prompt concern over the hierarchy of security around the city's monument and government core and the evolution of security levels at Washington's icons.

About 8:30 p.m., the eastbound truck veered off the street and crashed through the museum's line of nine dirt-filled cement security planters. The vehicle then cut between two outdoor sculptures on the museum plaza before breaking through one of the building's huge windows and coming to rest a foot inside the lobby.

Although the truck seemed to push the security planters aside easily, Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, said the planters did what they were designed to do.

"They're not expected to stop a truck," she said. "They're not imbedded in the ground."

"They're certainly a visual deterrent," she said. "They most likely will stop a car. But a truck -- because they're sitting on the concrete -- will be able to push them."

She said the planters, which were temporary and had been in place since 2003, probably slowed the truck and prevented the damage from being worse. "They did their job," she said. "We never thought that the planters were truck-proof. Then again, we've never had a [wayward] truck or a car go near a Smithsonian building."

Permanent security measures are planned for a future fiscal year, she said.

Rosenberg said the truck has been recovered and would be part of a company examination of the incident. She said she did not know the cause of the accident.

The Smithsonian's air and space museum, American Indian museum, natural history museum and part of the American history museum have permanent outdoor security systems, protected with things such as bollards embedded two to four feet in the ground, St. Thomas said. Five other museums are to get permanent security systems in the future, she said.

The circular-shaped Hirshhorn, on Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW, houses modern and contemporary art.

Nancy Somerville, chief executive of the American Society of Landscape Architects, said robust outdoor security is expensive and might not be necessary for every building.

"There's usually, behind the scenes, a pretty thoughtful risk assessment," she said. "In this case, the poor man in his truck had an impact with a temporary security barrier, which shows really just how temporary those are.

"Maybe one piece of good that could come out of this is a little more funding and little more thought into where we really do need security and how we do that correctly and appropriately," she said.

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