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Memo Warned of Ceiling Collapse July 27, 2006

Posted by jaldenh in Hmmm.....
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Safety officer feared deaths in 1999, now agonizes over tragedy

The on-site safety officer for the Interstate 90 connector directly warned his superiors at contractor Modern Continental Construction Co. that the tunnel ceiling could collapse because the bolts could not support the heavy concrete panels, and feared for his conscience if someone died as a result.

John J. Keaveney — in a starkly-worded two-page memo sent in 1999 to Robert Coutts, senior project manager for Modern Continental — wrote that he could not “comprehend how this structure can withhold the test of time.”

Keaveney added: “Should any innocent State Worker or member of the Public be seriously injured or even worse killed as a result, I feel that this would be something that would reflect Mentally and Emotionally upon me, and all who are trying to construct a quality Project.”

Keaveney, in an interview last night, said that after he raised the concern, his superiors at Modern Continental, the company then building the tunnel, and representatives from Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private sector manager of the Big Dig, sought to reassure him. They told him that such a system had been tested and was proven to work.

He said Coutts told him, “ `John, this is a tried and true method,’ ” he recalled. He also raised the concern in person with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff officials in subsequent conversations, but they said simply that they were doing the work to design specifications and that the ceiling would hold.

Andrew Paven, a spokesman for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, declined to comment last night.

Efforts to reach representatives of Modern Continental last night were unsuccessful. Coutts was on vacation and unavailable, a family member said last night.

Keaveney’s memo, written May 17, 1999, while the ceiling was being installed, almost eerily foretells the collapse that crushed Milena Del Valle to death two weeks ago.

Investigations launched after Del Valle’s death are increasingly focused on the bolt-and-epoxy system and why concrete panels weighing as much as 2,800 pounds were hung from the ceiling bolts without reinforcement. Keaveney’s memo is the strongest evidence that the contractor on the I-90 project was given specific warning of the risks of the ceiling system.

Keaveney told the Globe that he was not alone in his worries and that he decided to write the memo to reflect what he called the collective concerns being voiced among ironworkers installing the ceiling and other Modern Continental employees on the scene that the ceiling wouldn’t hold.

Keaveney wrote in the memo that the amount of weight being suspended from the ceiling appeared to be “excessive,” given that the bolts were “only inserted into concrete with epoxy.”

He also said that he observed water dripping down out of the holes that construction workers drilled before the epoxy and bolts were inserted. Given the water pressure on the tunnel ceiling, he asked whether the epoxy would hold. “I question whether the epoxy is suitable for a wet environment and how long can it withstand that force?” he wrote.

In the memo, he outlined other major concerns about the soundness of the ceiling system, including that the bolts and tiebacks were “exposed to the elements” prior to their installation, sitting on pallets, and appeared to have signs of rust.

He also wrote that the bolts “will be subject to horizontal and lateral movement . . . every time the Vent Building utilizes the Ventilation fans.”

Keaveney wrote in his memo that while workers were doing the project according to specifications, he worried that when the state took control of the tunnel, maintenance and vigilance would be neglected.

“My concerns are for that of the State when they assume control. They have a record of poor maintenance, and I just can envision that these sections will not receive the constant vigilance it would require,” he wrote.

Keaveney was so worried about the ceiling weight that he urged that all workers be prohibited from working underneath the ceiling until he could “receive assurances from Independent Engineers that the fastening method is sound immediately after installation.” He also urged that workers working above the ceiling be harnessed in case the ceiling gave way.

Keaveney, who was paid a salary of approximately $70,000 on the I-90 project, was responsible for on-site safety in the I-90 connector.

Keaveney, 43, who received his engineering degree from the University College Galway in Ireland, has had a long career in construction and is now safety officer for Shawmut Design and Construction, based in Boston.

Keaveney’s letter was mailed to a Globe reporter without Keaveney’s knowledge. He was contacted and verified it was his letter.

He said he really began to worry about the ceiling after a third-grade class from his hometown of Norwell came to visit the Big Dig for a tour in spring 1999. He showed the class some concrete ceiling panels and pointed to the bolts protruding from the ceiling, explaining that the panels would one day hang from those bolts.

A third-grade girl raised her hand and asked him, “Will those things hold up the concrete?”

He started voicing concerns among his colleagues and then to managers after that. “It was like the [third-graders] had pointed out the emperor has no clothes,” he said. “I said, `Yes, it would hold,’ but then I thought about it.”

He travels frequently and was in New York City on a job when Del Valle was killed. He returned to Boston July 12 and was watching the television news with this wife when the story came on.

“I said, `Oh, my God,’ that’s my job,” he said.

Keaveney said he blames himself. “I am part of the problem,” he said. “I failed to open my mouth. I failed to push the letter I wrote for results. I am partially responsible for the death of this mother.”

“Oh, yeah, it has been very difficult,” he said, his eyes welling up with tears.

He said he has not been able to sleep since it happened. “I failed there. There’s nothing I can do about it now.”

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.  

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
 

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