Big Dig Tragedy-Video Review Shows Difficulty Installing Ceiling Panels

I'm sitting in my production suite making DVDs from Big Dig video of tunnel construction and watching men without hard hats hang ceiling panels in the Ted Williams Tunnel. They give hardy handshakes to a Bechtel supervisor who stops by to glad hand and ignores the obvious OSHA violations. I can not help but wonder what other safety measures were overlooked in the cozy friendships of project managers and contractor field supervisors. Half-ton ceiling panels of concrete covered by porcelain are lowered into the tunnel deep under the harbor by crane. The 4 x10 panels are held together by a steel grid that will be hand bolted to steel bars suspended from the top of the tube tunnel. They look lightweight compared to the panels that plunged down to crush Milena Del Valle. The steel rods appear to be suspended from brackets bolted into the upper concrete ceiling. The heavy panels are raised into place by a machine. In early investigations, it has been determined that at least one of these ceiling sections of the Ted Williams Tunnel has to be replaced before more deaths occurs. The Mass Turnpike connector tunnel needs much more work to ever approach a reasonable level of safety.

Next tape. I can see the density of the rebar in the connector tunnel, noting the words "EAST BOUND" painted on girders suspended over the lane where Milena Del Valle lost her life in an avoidable ceiling tunnel collapse. It's clear to me from the last two tapes that a stubborn decision by project managers to use ceiling panels that were too heavy despite warnings about design from contractors probably cost her life last month. On the screen, the iron workers twist the rebar ties relentlessly. It becomes more obvious why construction workers who hung the cumbersome 2-ton ceiling panels in 12-ton grid arrangements would have been frustrated. Trying to bore clean holes to hold bolts affixed to the ceiling by epoxy would have been tricky, the drill repeatedly screwed by rebar. The rebar is tied together in thick streams inside the concrete structure. In long camera shots it looks like a solid green sea, and up close the 3 or 4 inches between vertical and horizontal bars form an odd looking clear and green plaid wall.

The tape moves to close-ups of worker's faces. I speculate that working overhead with concrete bits and dust falling down in your face while trying to hoist a drill heavy enough to bore a hole for each bolt must have been very frustrating. Boring once again into the rebar, it would have been so tempting to just epoxy a hole to insert the bolt even if the hole was not 100% concrete, not understanding the epoxy would not bond to the rebar. I can imagine one of these workers thinking that no one would ever know the difference if he did not try again an inch away to make a clean hole. Late at night working in a cold and lonely tunnel where the light is so dim, peering into a hole hole to see if it is clean would be too hard for almost anyone. Perhaps one of the workers I'm watching decided to indicate to a buddy in charge of heating epoxy that the hole bored into rebar was bored through only concrete.

Maybe today he's worried that he will be asked about this. I do have a few questions for the people who hung that ceiling. Did you use the shirt sleeve on your shoulder in the heat of the early summer morning to wipe the sweat that was dripping down your face? Do you remember how your skin felt like cracking while sweat mixed with concrete bits? Did your throat tighten from the acrid smell of the chipped cement while your arms ached from the pounding drill overhead? That must have made your decision easier to justify. Each time the drill screeched into rebar and washed your bare arms beyond the thick work gloves with sparks that bit your skin and singed the hair escaping from under your hard hat, it must have been easier to ignore the instructions to get a clean hole. I can understand if you signaled another worker to insert the epoxy. I do not condone it, but I can understand it.

I imagine your thoughts at night when you lie awake unable to sleep since the number of drinks that are provided to drown out the voice in your head. What did the project managers expect? You told them twice that this epoxy was not going to work and they looked at you like you must be lazy, crazy, stoned or worse. Or you kept your mouth shut so the official engineer in a tie and hard hat with a clip board and the clean smell of aftershave would give you some overtime that you needed for new school clothes for the kids. But that was no excuse to proceed anyway, despite instructions on the epoxy. You know who you are and it is time to come forward. Yes, I know what happened to Keaveney and his memo. No one is talking about a confession or heroism. Just let the press know, anonymously if you need to, anything about the Big Dig that you know was not done well. Do it now while the federal investigation is just starting. After all, that could have been someone you loved in the tunnel last month or it might be a family member of yours in the future.

According to the Boston Globe coverage this week, the design team under contract for the connector tunnel in the early 1990s was misinformed that the ceiling would be the lighter weight design used in the Ted Williams Tunnel. Later, when the design changed to very heavy concrete panels, this design firm warned the project managers. Aside from warnings from designers and complaints from contractors about the weight of the selected design for the tunnel ceiling panels, CA / T project managers went ahead with the heavier concrete slabs to "save MONEY"! This decision was the final decision from politicians and engineers who ended up spending $ 14.8 billion or more for a project originally estimated at $ 2.3 billion.

While not in keeping with the quality of work that unions profess, it's easier to understand the neglect of the concrete worker searching for a clean hole than the blatant objection for public safety shown by the project managers and engineers who were warned about this potential structural failure. What is their excuse? Was it the bead of sweat over trying to pay themselves and Bechtel a small fortune and keep the costs for the project in line with the budget? Was it the choked up ache in the throat from the latest signing bonus for yet another brother-in-law without experience for a white collar job? Were their arms aching from signing checks for themselves and their friends?

Members of the Joint Venture (the state and Bechtel / Parsons, Brinkerhoff) had information that the tunnel ceiling design might not be safe following safety tests of the bolts in 1994. There were reports of problems with the bolts in both the eastbound and westbound lanes . The response of at least one managing project director was to order further load testing in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane only. The High Occupancy Vehicle lane bolts tested well for loads that were double the weight of the ceiling panels.

These officials then chose to handle the problem the way many problems are handled in Boston, by taking care of their own and disregarding everyone else. According to the Boston Globe on August 16, special privileges were extended for project managers and the employees of the MBTA. Project Managers and employees of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority received special status to travel in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane at all times. This was the only lane tested for ceiling safety that was shown to be safe in the connector tunnel. Where is the moral outrage in Boston? Will the politically privileged get a pass on suchibleible behavior while they scrutinize the half dozen Walsh employees who actually installed the ceiling bolts in the panel that collapsed? Give me a break. The project managers and engineers who failed to heed the warnings should be in jail by now. Attorney General Tom Reilly is too busy covering his own neglect of a Bechtel lawsuit while counting campaign contributions from Bechtel and project managers in his run for Governor to get his job done.

The next Governor of this Commonwealth has a really big job, a different kind of Big Dig. It will be a monumental task to root out the patronage havens in the 40 or so quasi-public authorities. These semi-private agencies get their money from the Commonwealth, but have no responsibility or accountability to the people of this state. Mitt Romney has done little to help this state over the past three years and we have yet to see if his new leader appointment at the Turnpike can actually accomplish anything. If he wanted to really demonstrate some leadership he would clean house at every quasi-public authority in this Commonwealth before he goes off to run for President. Actually, cleaning out the patronage and getting rid of the buddy deals between government and contractors would be good practice for the next occupant of the White House, who ever gets the job.
© 2006, Dale Orlando