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Christo Says He’s Saddened by Fatality : Umbrellas: The environmental artist says he will dedicate a book and film about the project to the Camarillo woman who lost her life.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As the family of a Camarillo woman planned her funeral Monday, environmental artist Christo said he was saddened that one of his giant umbrellas had caused her death.

Christo said he will dedicate a book and a film about his art project, “The Umbrellas”, to Lori Keevil-Mathews, 34, a Camarillo insurance agent.

Keevil-Mathews was killed Saturday when heavy winds tore one of the umbrellas from its stand. The 485-pound umbrella hit the woman, who was viewing the art project at the Tejon Pass near Interstate 5 with her husband, Michael Mathews.

“Unlike a project that is in a home or museum, this project (was) exposed to real life,” said the Bulgarian-born Christo at a somber news conference.

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Christo said he and his wife, Jeanne-Claude Javacheff, plan to visit Keevil-Mathews’ widower, but would not say whether they would offer compensation.

Keevil-Mathews’s mother-in-law, Shirley Bjornestad, said several attorneys had telephoned, but the family had been busy making funeral arrangements and had not had time to consider whether to file a lawsuit.

Christo, who was touring the Japanese half of the bi-continental project when the accident occurred, returned to the Tejon Pass site Monday night and announced that he will hire an engineering firm to inspect the umbrellas.

He said, however, that he does not believe there were any structural flaws in the design. He put the blame for the incident solely on the sudden winds that exceeded the design capabilities of the umbrellas.

Officials in Kern County, where the accident occurred, said Monday that Christo had at least $2 million in liability insurance on the umbrella project.

That policy--and a “hold harmless” clause in the artist’s county permit--probably means Kern County would not be held legally responsible for her death, officials said.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County officials, who also approved the project that straddles the county line, sent building engineers to tour the 18-mile stretch of the Tejon Pass where Christo crew members continued dismantling 1,760 umbrellas. This weekend, strong winds uprooted several umbrellas--including the one that killed Keevil-Mathews--and destroyed at least 100 more.

Building and safety officials in both Los Angeles and Kern counties said they based their approvals of the $26-million project largely on information supplied by the Christo organization. Included were structural engineering reports, traffic studies and even a wind tunnel test performed in Canada, they said.

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The wind tunnel tests were required by Los Angeles County and Japan, where 1,340 blue umbrellas were erected.

“We told him that if his test data didn’t show they can withstand the winds up there, he wasn’t going to get approval,” said Tom Remillard, superintendent of building for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

Jim Hogg, chief of the Kern County engineering department, said he was “extremely surprised when I heard about the accident on TV.”

“Of anybody that has processed plans through here,” Hogg said, “they were probably the most careful that their structures were adequate to handle the wind load.”

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In issuing permits to the artist, both counties required that the umbrellas meet state building codes. The California Uniform Building Code requires that structures in much of the Tejon Pass be able to withstand 70 m.p.h. winds, although the umbrellas were only tested to withstand 65 m.p.h. winds while open.

However, county officials said they routinely approve permits for structures they suspect will sustain some damage in maximum winds.

“In all construction, you basically design for something less than the worst-case scenario, assuming that something worse than that isn’t going to cause failure, but will just require some repairs,” Hogg said.

As a precautionary measure, Christo had given his crews instructions to close umbrellas whenever winds reached 35 m.p.h., but because they are cranked by hand, they could not be closed fast enough when winds unexpectedly picked up on Saturday.

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Christo officials have said they chose October because it was “the calmest month” in the windy pass, but private and public weather experts dispute that, saying storms often pass through in mid- to late-October.

The umbrella that killed Keevil-Mathews was located on Kern County right-of-way. In Bakersfield, County Counsel Bernie Barmann Sr. said the county’s land encroachment permit included a “hold harmless” clause, which guaranteed Christo would defend the county in the case of a suit.

Kern County also required proof of liability insurance for the project and Christo submitted a $2-million policy, which covers the two counties, the state and private landowners who allowed umbrellas to be constructed on their properties Barmann said.

Los Angeles County attorneys could not be reached for comment about their contract with Christo, but Remillard acknowledged that the accident raised questions about their potential liability.

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Legal scholars doubted whether the counties would have to share in any judgments against the project. Instead, they said, the liability would probably fall to Christo, to his designers and to the umbrella manufacturers.

“This is a public relations disaster for Christo,” said Prof. Gary Schwartz, who teaches tort law at UCLA. “I would suspect . . . that there would be a good chance of a quick and generous settlement, if he is in the financial situation to do so.”

Also contributing to this story was Times staff writer Tina Daunt.


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