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Published: Saturday, 7/31/2004

Bridge contractor is faulted; violations could cost Fru-Con $280,000

BY ROBIN ERB AND JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Federal investigators have determined that the Feb. 16 crane collapse that killed four ironworkers on the new I-280 bridge most likely was caused by the general contractor s failure to follow the manufacturer s instructions.

Fru-Con Construction Corp. failed to properly secure both the rear and front legs of two 900-ton cranes used to erect the span, according to a list of four workplace violations released yesterday by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Jule Jones, head of the Toledo OSHA office, called the violations willful and egregious.

Fru-Con could have and should have known these anchorings were necessary, she said.

The four violations are among OSHA s most serious and carried a maximum, recommended penalty of $280,000.

This tragic accident could have and should have been prevented, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw said in prepared statements.

On at least two occasions, crews failed to place the necessary bars, or large bolts, needed to secure the two cranes, also known as launching gantries, to the bridge s piers. The cranes were used to construct the span by lifting massive concrete bridge segments into place, according to OSHA s findings.

Without them, the crane could not sufficiently resist the longitudinal and latitudinal forces applied ... during the launching process, Ms. Jones said.

Fru-Con, of Ballwin, Mo., has 15 days to appeal OSHA s findings.

The much-anticipated report offered the first glimpse into investigators insights into the accident involving the largest single road construction project in Ohio history. It is the region s worst construction accident in decades.

It immediately spawned a debate between the contractor and manufacturer about who s to blame in a case that is widely expected to result in lawsuits from the victims and their families.

Dave Herron, a representative of Fru-Con, said the company had the manufacturer s blessing for the procedure.

But Richard Kerger, a local attorney representing the manufacturer, claimed yesterday that Paola de Nicola, an Italian company, repeatedly had warned Fru-Con about questionable procedures.

Despite the debate, the Ohio Department of Transportation stood behind Fru-Con, the nation s fifth-largest construction firm. ODOT Assistant Director Richard Martinko said the state agency had no reason to drop Fru-Con from the project, calling the firm a quality contractor.

Both the Toledo police and the Lucas County prosecutor s office continue their investigations. If they find evidence of criminal negligence, it could lead to criminal charges against a company or against individuals, said Dean Mandross, chief of the prosecutor s criminal division.

The prosecutor s office is considering charges of reckless homicide, a felony, or negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, and has reviewed correspondence between Paolo de Nicola and Fru-Con, Mr. Mandross said.

Mr. Kerger said he believed Paolo de Nicola had expressed concerns about procedures with Fru-Con.

Had Paola di Nicola approved the procedures, he argued, it would seem to me, there would be two parties cited for those [OSHA] violations.

OSHA cited Fru-Con for violations on Feb. 16 and for the same anchoring problems on Feb. 2. Investigation details remain confidential, pending a potential appeal by Fru-Con. Citing that confidentiality, Ms. Jones of OSHA declined to say what led investigators to conclude the violations also occurred on Feb. 2.

Mr. Herron, Fru-Con s project manager, said yesterday that Paolo de Nicola representatives had approved the modifications made to the anchoring process late last year.

We had a method with Paolo de Nicola and that was the method we used. It was done with them on site, Mr. Herron said yesterday at a press conference hosted by ODOT. It took place after OSHA released its violations. The confusion centered on the number of bolts used to secure the gantry with each move, he said.

Originally requiring special high-tension bolts, the anchoring procedure had been modified to use fewer, with each move using a different number of bolts, he said. Mr. Herron would not say why the method was changed.

Mr. Martinko of ODOT was careful not to assign blame for the accident. But he said Fru-Con misunderstood the proper methods for securing the truss cranes, and he noted that the manufacturer, in fact, had been on site at different times.

It is my understanding that Fru-Con felt it was complying with the manufacturer s specifications, he said. They had [Paolo de Nicola] on site during launches when they launched the truss in this manner, so we had no reason to believe that the past launches using this operation was not following specifications.

Obviously, the report says otherwise, and we take that very seriously, he said. We have to make it right, fix it, and move forward.

Until its collapse, the $3 million crane worked in tandem with a sister crane. The two rigs operated with two main components: an overbridge and an underbridge. The overbridge would be moved into place on erected piers, sliding over its underbridge, which would then move forward out of the way.

Once in position, the overbridge apparatus lifted precast segments, typically about 15 feet wide, into place. When the section was completed, the overbridge slid into its next position, repeating the cycle.

Crews had finished 11 of the 30 pairs of approach spans in East Toledo and were moving the cranes into position when it fell shortly before 2:30 p.m.

Killed were Robert Lipinski, Jr., 44, of Grand Rapids, Ohio; Mike Moreau, 30, of Lambertville, and Mike Phillips, 42, of South Toledo. Arden Clark, 47, of West Toledo died two days later at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. Each was an experienced ironworker and a member of Ironworkers, Local 55.

Injured were Josh Collins, 26, of East Toledo; Al Hedge, 46, of Bradner, Ohio; Roger Henneman, 43, of Curtice, and Mark Buck, 47, of Swanton. Mr. Buck and Mr. Hedge are members of Operating Engineers Local 18. The other injured men are Ironworkers Local 55 members.

Acting upon recommendations by Wiss, Janney, Elster Associates, out of Northbrook Ill., Fru-Con has made several modifications to the remaining crane. Work could resume on the main approaches with that crane as soon as Fru-Con offers an acceptable plan to continue, Mr. Martinko said.

A smaller, third crane, which has a different design, was put back into use in April to help erect the bridge s ramps. It is being disassembled for use on the north side of the river.

A crane collapsed on Feb. 16, killing four ironworkers who were building the I-280 bridge. Four others were injured. A crane collapsed on Feb. 16, killing four ironworkers who were building the I-280 bridge. Four others were injured.
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The project, which had been ahead of schedule, may not be finished until its original completion date in 2006 or even 2007, Mr. Martinko said.

Mr. Herron of Fru-Con, agreed.

It depends on getting a safe system that all parties can agree to. We are not cutting corners, he said. We will not start until we believe the system is safe.

Among those who must be convinced are the ironworkers, who have yet to complete their own investigation into the accident. Joe Blaze, business manager for Local 55, said the OSHA report may only offer a partial explanation: I don t want to rule everything out. There could be more.

Lawyer Kevin Boissoneault agreed. His law firm, Gallon & Takacs, represents Mr. Henneman and the estates of Mr. Lipinski and Mr. Moreau. The firm also is conducting its own investigation.

It s not the end, he said of the release of the OSHA findings. It s not something where you close the notebook and say, so to speak, There it is. In some respects, it s a beginning. There is much more to do and much more to look at, and that process continues.

Should prosecutors file charges locally, it would be the first time, in recent memory at least, that the office would charge a corporation in a construction accident, Prosecutor Julia Bates said.

Neither she nor Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre would speculate on how long it might take to finish the inquiry, and the chief added that investigators could be sent to Italy to interview representatives of the crane s manufacturer.

We have a responsibility to the families of the men who were involved to do a thorough investigation, he said.

Meanwhile, Brad Mitchell, an OSHA spokesman, confirmed that the agency has discussed its findings with federal prosecutors, though he declined to detail the discussions.

Yesterday marked the second time OSHA has cited Fru-Con for safety violations in four months.

In April, OSHA cited Fru-Con for five serious violations for safety hazards that exposed workers to possible injury and even death. OSHA proposed $23,000 in fines.

The company was accused of not taking adequate measures to protect employees working on scaffolding from falling or to protect those on the ground from being struck by falling objects. Fru-Con, which corrected the problems as soon as they were pointed out, has notified OSHA s Toledo office that it will contest all of the citations.

The latest findings were met with anger and frustration yesterday by those who gathered for lunch at Tucker s Bar & Grill on Consaul Street, near the bridge.

Jim Peppers, a 46-year-old welder from Sylvania Township, said anyone in the construction business understands the dangers involved and that accidents can and do happen.

Still, Mr. Peppers said, someone should be held accountable. If they were doing all the proper procedures, that s one thing, he said. The safety equipment was there, why didn t they use it?

Blade staff writers Erica Blake, Christopher D. Kirkpatrick, and Mark Reiter contributed to this report. Contact Robin Erb at:robinerb@theblade.comor 419-724-6133.



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