Big Dig collapse predicted in 1999

News Chicago Tribune July 28, 2006
Printer-friendly version

The on-site safety officer for the I-90 connector tunnel, a part of Boston's Big Dig underground transportation system, 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, the Chicago Tribune reported.

John Keaveney wrote that he also feared for his conscience if someone died as a result.

In a two-page memo sent in 1999 to Robert Coutts, senior project manager for Modern Continental, Keaveney said he could not "comprehend how this structure can [withstand] the test of time."

He also wrote: "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 the a quality project."

Keaveney recently said that after he raised concern for the bolts, his superiors at Modern Continental, the company then building the tunnel, and representatives from Bechtel/Parsons Brinkerhoff, the private sector manager of the Big Dig project, reassured him. They told him that such a system had been tested and was proven to work, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Keaveney said that Coutts told him: "'this is a tried and true method.'" He also raised the concern later in person with Bechtel/Parsons Brinkerhoff officials, but they said they were doing the work to design specifications and that the ceiling would hold, the Tribune reported.

Andrew Paven, spokesman for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, declined to comment. A Modern Continental spokesman referred to an earlier statement in which the company said it was cooperating fully and was confident the work complied with plans and specifications, according to the newspaper.

Keaveney's memo, written May 17, 1999, while the ceiling was being installed, nearly foretells the collapse that crushed Milena Del Valle to death on July 10.

Keaveney's disclosure "really made me feel a little ill," Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said this week, according to The Associated Press. "You shake your head and say, 'Gosh, why didn't anybody go in there, particularly knowing the kind of information that was in those memos in the past?"

Recent investigations launched after Del Valle's death are focusing on the bolt-and-epoxy system and why concrete panels weighing up to 2,800 lb 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, according the Chicago Tribune.

In the memo, Keaveney wrote that the amount of weight being suspended from the ceiling appeared to be "excessive," especially because the bolts were "only inserted into concrete with epoxy."

According to the Tribune, he also 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 noted that the bolts and tiebacks were "exposed to the elements" before their installation, having sat on pallets, and appeared to have signs of rust, the Tribune reported.

Keaveney, 43, has had a long career in construction and is now a safety officer for Shawmut design and Construction in Boston. His letter was sent to a Boston Globe reporter without his knowledge. Keaveney verified that it was in fact his letter.

Keaveney said he began to really worry about the ceiling after a 3rd-grade class from his hometown of Norwell came to tour the Big Dig in spring 1999. He showed the class the concrete ceiling panels and pointed to the bolts protruding from the ceiling, explaining that the panels would one day hang from those bolts, the newspaper reported.

A 3rd-grade girl asked Keaveney, "Will those things hold up the concrete?"

He then started voicing concerns among his colleagues and then to managers. "It was like the [3rd-graders] had pointed out the emperor has no clothes," he said. "I said, 'Yes, it would hold,' but then I then I thought about it."

Overlay Init