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Mass. Governor Takes Control of Big Dig Inspections

The tunnel could be closed for weeks as engineers fix problems that caused a fatal collapse of concrete ceiling panels Monday.

July 15, 2006|From the Associated Press

BOSTON — Gov. Mitt Romney took control of inspections of the troubled Big Dig highway project Friday, pledging that he would not reopen a tunnel where a woman was killed until engineers resolved problems with heavy concrete ceiling panels that collapsed.

Romney said the tunnel could remain closed for weeks, until he was confident the 3-ton panels would not fall on motorists.

"And at this stage, you just have to cross your fingers that they don't come down," he said. "The people who are working in the tunnel are wearing hard hats for a reason."

Romney signed emergency legislation Friday giving him responsibility for tunnel inspections that had previously been overseen by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The law, passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature late Thursday, also empowered Romney to decide when it would be safe for the public to use the tunnels.

After signing the bill, Romney met at the accident scene with federal and state investigators. The governor said he planned to speak to the Turnpike Authority's engineering and construction staff to clearly establish the lines of authority.

The National Transportation Safety Board, as well as federal and state law enforcement agencies, are overseeing investigations to determine the cause of the collapse and any potential criminal liability.

Inspectors looking for design or construction flaws have focused on bolts that held the ceiling panels in place and may have contributed to the accident that killed Milena Del Valle, 38.

On Friday, Romney counted 84 potential problems in the tunnel where the fatality occurred. He said two adjoining sections of the tunnel, as well as traffic ramps, had 278 more possible defects.

In addition, the governor said, there were 401 potential trouble spots in neighboring tunnels, but none was especially worrisome because those tunnels had different designs with greater redundancy. The ceiling panels in those tunnels were also much lighter than the 3-ton concrete panels that fell Monday night.

The governor said it was impossible to speculate when the tunnel would reopen.

"If miraculously every bolt was found to be in perfect shape, and everything was doing fine, why, it could be done very quickly," Romney said. "If, on the other hand, we find that there are problems throughout the system ... it's probably a matter of weeks, not days."

The 3-ton ceiling panels were part of a false ceiling used to improve ventilation and to protect the structure in case of fire or other catastrophes.

The concrete slabs were held in place by a hanger system in which rods connected the panels to metal plates mounted to the tunnel's roof. Those plates were held in place by bolts drilled into the concrete. The initial investigation had focused on whether the bolts broke free because of problems with epoxies used to hold them in place.

Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly, who is spearheading the state criminal investigation, had said that both the contractor, Modern Continental Construction Co., and the project overseer, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, were told in 1999 that five initial ceiling bolts had broken free during testing. He questioned whether a prescribed fix had been made.

In a statement, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff defended the construction technique.

"Supporting concrete ceiling panels by anchoring bolts to the roof with epoxy adhesive is widely and successfully used throughout the construction industry," the company said.

Engineers are trained to assume that parts sometimes fail and to build that expectation into their plans, according to Steven Banzaert, an MIT instructor who teaches a course in "Spectacular engineering failures."

The goal is to build a structure that can lose a certain number of bolts without falling and then adopt a regular maintenance plan to replace those failed parts, he said.

"You're not just building a bridge, you're building a strategy to keep the bridge from falling," Banzaert said.

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