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June 06 2007 - Life after 4 story fall

At least two minutes after 17-month-old Ryan Shull fell from a fourth-floor stairwell in the St. Joseph's Tower building, his father's cell phone rang.

"Hello?" George Shull said.

"Hi, this is the Fire Department," said the dispatcher, who had just learned of the fall in a 911 call from Ryan's mother, Wendy Shull, after George panicked and called Wendy instead of 911. "What's going on there?"

"Yeah," George said, crying, "my little girl opened up the balcony door here and my little boy fell off the fourth-story balcony. I hope ... he's OK."

Dispatcher: "He fell all the way to the ground?"

George: "Yeah, he fell on the ground."

Dispatcher (to someone in the background at the 911 center): "He fell four stories, he's on the ground."

Later, toward the end of the six-minute, 30-second call, George asked the dispatcher a question.

"Hey, do you think he'll be OK?"

"I don't know. I can't answer that question, sir."

Future uncertain

That was Nov. 30, shortly after 5 p.m., according to a tape of the 911 calls recently obtained by The Tribune. George, Ryan and his then-4-year-old sister, Mandy, had been visiting George's mother when Mandy and Ryan left her apartment to play hide-and-seek, the family told police.

Five months later, Ryan survives, but the quality of life he will ultimately lead remains uncertain, his family says.

During a recent Tribune interview with his parents and his other grandmother, Ryan sat in a wheelchair, unable to move his arms or legs much. He can't sit up or control his trunk. He can only take in nutrients through a gastrointestinal tube. He sometimes will turn his head in response to sounds, but other times, he just seems to stare off into the distance.

George and Wendy, who are developmentally disabled, had their own home with Ryan and Mandy before the accident. But since then, they have lived with Wendy's mother, Marilyn Lee, in her Mishawaka home, so that she can help take care of the little boy.

With potentially a lifetime of costly care ahead, the family has recently filed a lawsuit against the owner of St. Joseph's Tower, Novi, Mich.-based Trinity Continuing Care Services. The suit alleges that Ryan's fall was caused by the company's negligence.

Legal or moral obligation?

The Shulls' attorney, Rob Gonderman Jr., said he will argue that the stairwell landing's horizontal safety rails were spaced too far apart, allowing Ryan to slip through. Since the fall, the company has added black vertical bars, creating a cross-hatched pattern that eliminates the gaps.

The Uniform Building Code, which the city of South Bend and state of Indiana follow, calls for a minimum 4-inch gap between safety rails. There was at least a 9-inch space between the St. Joseph's Tower rails at the time of the fall, Gonderman said.

In fact, the 9-inch standard was in place when the high-rise was built in 1972, according to the International Code Council, the trade association that sets the building safety and fire prevention codes adopted by most state and local governments.

Buildings that already exist when the safety rail code is changed are not legally required to comply with the new codes, said Don Fozo, county building commissioner. Instead, they are considered a "nonconforming use."

The safety rail spacing standard was reduced to 6 inches in 1982, and to 4 inches in 1991. The 4-inch standard is based on the typical diameter of a small child's head.

Neither a Trinity Consumer Care Services spokeswoman nor the company's South Bend attorney, D. Andrew Spalding, would comment when contacted by The Tribune.

Gonderman said he realizes that such code changes exempt pre-existing structures from mandatory compliance. But he thinks a jury will be sympathetic to Ryan's cause.

"The building commissioner can't make you do it, but that doesn't mean you're not negligent for not doing it," Gonderman said. "The question is, When everyone knows it's unsafe, how long can you leave it like that?"

But Craig Allen, a Seattle-based building and fire safety code expert, said property owners could never afford to renovate their buildings every time codes change.

One of the few times a Uniform Building Code change has been made retroactive, meaning even pre-existing structures had to comply, was in the late 1980s, when a new code required high-rises to have fire alarms and sprinklers, Allen said. That change followed a rash of deadly high-rise fires in the 1970s.

But Allen questioned whether the owner of a retirement home -- where children do not live -- should be expected to retroactively child-proof its balconies and exterior stairwell landings.

"It sounds crass, but that's a lot of expense without a lot of exposure (to risk)," said Allen, who has served as an expert trial witness for both property owners and people who sue them in such cases. "From the building owner's standpoint, it's tough enough to keep the building maintained, let alone keep up with all of the code changes. It's tough to call someone negligent on something like that."

But Gonderman said he would be surprised if the vertical bars the company installed after Ryan fell cost more than $1,000. He said he will request documentation on that cost in the case's discovery process.

Tough road ahead

It is unclear where George was when Ryan fell. Child Protective Services removed Mandy from the couple's care after the accident but returned her shortly later, police have said.

But the family's income is limited to what George and Wendy receive in federal benefits tied to their developmental disabilities, and what Marilyn Lee earns as a part-time cashier at a fast-food restaurant.

Lee, a widow, also is raising a 12-year-old son, Bradley.

So far, Medicaid has covered all of Ryan's care, Lee said. He has been hospitalized several times since the accident, in South Bend and Indianapolis. Just a half-hour after first arriving home from the hospital in January, he was rushed back in for treatment of seizures.

Most recently, on April 16, the family took Ryan to his pediatrician after he developed a high fever. The pediatrician spotted an infection near the g-tube opening in his abdomen. He spent several days in Memorial Hospital.

Lee said customers at the restaurant where she works often ask about Ryan.

"We want people to know he is a strong little boy," Lee said. "He's a happy little boy. His sister is happy that he's home."

Ryan spends most of his time on his back, on a blanket spread out on the floor, but he does sit up in his wheelchair a couple of hours a day -- especially to catch his favorite television shows, "Go, Diego, Go!" and "Blue's Clues."

George said his son hums the Barney tune and makes a "VRRM, VRRM!" sound when it's time to ride in the car.

But Lee said it's been difficult not knowing whether Ryan will ever do the things most people take for granted.

"This has been a tragedy for us because it's hard to just see him and know he can't get out and do anything," Lee said. "No one can say when he's going to walk and if he's going to walk. It's a lot of things to do for Ryan because Ryan can't do nothing. He needs a lot of help, but that's what we're here for. But he's a fighter.

"I have faith that he will get better, because he's a wonderful little boy. I just got to pray and think positive. If you think negative, you're going to have negative results."

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