Tunnel roof collapse kills 1

Tons of concrete in Boston's troubled Big Dig fall on woman's car

July 12, 2006|By ELIZABETH MEHREN | ELIZABETH MEHREN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOSTON -- At least 12 tons of concrete fell from the ceiling of this city's Big Dig late Monday night, crushing a woman to death and raising new questions about the safety of the $15 billion underground highway and tunnel system.

The ceiling collapse in a connector section of Interstate 90 followed a winter in which the country's most ambitious urban infrastructure project was afflicted by falling debris, floods, leaking walls and concerns about construction methods in the transportation labyrinth.

Declaring that "people should not have to drive through turnpike tunnels with their fingers crossed," Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said yesterday that he understood why motorists might be losing confidence in the Big Dig.

"I don't think anyone can feel safe driving through a tunnel system where just last night, someone got killed by a three-ton piece of concrete falling on their car," he said.

Romney and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew J. Amorello have long been at odds, and the tunnel accident only stepped up the battle. Yesterday, Romney angrily called for Amorello's ouster as head of the agency that supervised the vast Big Dig construction project and now oversees its operation.

State Attorney General Tom Reilly yesterday described the area where the collapse occurred as a crime scene, and said the incident could lead to charges of negligent homicide. State police, the U.S. attorney and the Federal Highway Administration also promised prompt probes.

The incident also is expected to add a contentious note to the state's gubernatorial race. Independent candidate Christy Mihos, a former member of the Turnpike Authority board, urged Romney yesterday to seize control of the agency.

The governor, a Republican who is exploring a 2008 presidential bid, cut short a vacation at his New Hampshire summer home to tour the damaged area. Romney also expressed sympathy to the family of Milena Delvalle, a 38-year-old Boston restaurant worker.

Delvalle and her husband were headed to Logan International Airport to pick up relatives when at least four slabs of concrete -- each weighing three tons -- fell on their car about 11 p.m. Monday. Angel Delvalle, 46, was able to escape through the driver's side window with only minor injuries. His wife died instantly, authorities said.

Steel tiebacks that held the 40-foot ceiling sections in place gave way, causing the accident, Amorello said yesterday. The ceiling panels were set in place in 1999, bolted to the tunnel roof by the tiebacks. At least 17 areas of the Big Dig use similar construction, authorities said.

Standing near the accident site, Amorello vowed: "Any responsible party will be held accountable for what happened."

Giant slabs of concrete lay strewn on the stretch of highway that leads to the Ted Williams Tunnel. The "Ted," as the tunnel is known, passes under Boston Harbor and ends at Logan Airport. The I-90 connector, opened in 2003, runs under an industrial part of South Boston near the city's gleaming new convention center.

"This is an unacceptable, horrible tragedy," said Amorello. Insisting that "these tunnels are safe," he called the incident "an anomaly" and promised an independent investigation.

But Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said: "We don't need a six-month study. We need an immediate reaction and action by the different authorities so that we can reassure the public as they drive into the city or drive over to the airport that the tunnel is safe to go through."

The same worries apparently were on the minds of some motorists yesterday. The fatal ceiling collapse made havoc of the commute hours. Drivers racing to catch planes struggled to find new routes to an airport that lies across the harbor from the city it serves.

Boarding a ferry to catch a plane to Virginia, accountant Mary Sullivan, 52, said the ceiling collapse increased her doubts about the Big Dig.

"What ceiling's going to come down next?" she said. "The inspectors, what were they doing?"

The Big Dig has long been faulted for cost overruns, questionable construction and what Romney yesterday labeled "an ongoing pattern of mismanagement." In May, six men who supplied concrete to the Big Dig were charged with providing substandard materials.

Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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