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Published: Sunday, 2/13/2005

Early memo spelled out crane danger

BY JOE MAHR AND GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

From their office in the plains of northern Italy, designers of two hulking cranes worried about how they would be used to build a bridge set to reshape Toledo's skyline.

An Italian engineer sent a series of e-mails and memos halfway around the world to contractor Fru-Con Construction Corp.'s Toledo office. As Fru-Con was testing the 2 million pound horizontal cranes, the engineer warned the firm wasn't properly anchoring the machines that stretched the length of a football field.

"We hope that you clearly understand that the inadequacy of the anchorings may cause the collapse of the equipments," engineer Andrea D'Elia wrote in one memo.

Seven months later, one of the two cranes collapsed - with deadly consequences.

In the end, improper anchorings were singled out for blame.

Now, one year after the Feb. 16 accident, an investigation by The Blade has found that Fru-Con received early warnings about not following the manufacturer's recommendations.

The warnings are part of documents - e-mails, memos, letters, and witness statements - detailing one of the worst construction accidents in Toledo history, an accident that has spawned an ongoing criminal probe.

In a review of thousands of those documents, along with interviews with dozens of people involved in the project, The Blade investigation found that:

  • The crane's designers, Paolo de Nicola SpA, sent four messages to Fru-Con in mid-2003 complaining the contractor wasn't safely anchoring the cranes during the first major test - including the memo that warned of a collapse.

  • Fru-Con said it corrected the problems after the test. But the construction firm later reduced the number of anchoring bolts it used on the cranes, bridge workers told investigators, against manufacturer specifications.

  • Fru-Con complained about crane design flaws, such as an inability to "accommodate" bridge curves. Yet Fru-Con did not share its concerns, or the concerns of Paolo de Nicola, with a special labor-management-government committee set up to ensure worker safety. The crane collapsed while setting up over a future bridge curve.

  • Government watchdog agencies never inspected the safety of the cranes, which had not been used previously in northwest Ohio. One former official of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the agency's local office lacked the expertise.

    In what was supposed to be a job of a lifetime - a project that workers could point to with pride long after they retired -four ironworkers lost their lives: Mike Phillips, 42; Mike Moreau, 30; Robert Lipinski, Jr., 44, and Arden Clark II, 47.

    In what had become Ohio's largest construction project - a $220 million skyway spanning the Maumee River - the work site's highest-profile equipment was the twin cranes, known as self-launching gantry trusses.

    Working above the hum of I-280 traffic, the trusses crawled along piers, snatching and putting into place 60-ton concrete segments that would become the road deck for the signature bridge. The cranes, which are more common in Europe and Asia than America, would allow the state to keep I-280 open during the bridge construction.

    But the cranes' cost and complexity would lead to months of bitter, behind-the-scenes disputes between Fru-Con and Paolo de Nicola, according to Ohio Department of Transportation records obtained by The Blade.

    They would argue about shipping costs. They would argue about missing parts. They would argue about design flaws. They would argue about continuing malfunctions.

    And they would argue about the anchors - a debate kept from the workers who entrusted their lives to the equipment they were told to use.

    Joe Blaze had reason to be optimistic.

    Nearly 100 members of his Ironworkers local had secured steady, long-term jobs working on what would become one of their generation's most visible additions to the Toledo skyline.

    Their bosses came from a century-old company that touted an award-winning safety record.

    And - at a March, 2003, press conference - that company, Fru-Con of suburban St. Louis, agreed to a bold "partnership" with unions, safety regulators, and the Ohio Department of Transportation. Everyone vowed to work together to keep workers safe.

    Among the promises by Fru-Con: Ensure "employees are kept apprised of safety and health issues."

    Mr. Blaze, the business manager of Ironworkers Local 55, became a member of the special safety committee, and he said he had no reason to doubt the firm's sincerity, adding that he was "naive."

    Now, two years later, he said he never saw the memos from Paolo de Nicola warning Fru-Con of the anchoring problems with the crane. After reading them, he shrugs.

    "I'm upset, very upset," he said. "It makes me think of a lot more questions now than I ever had."

    The project seemed straight-forward two years ago.

    Nearly two decades after its take-over by German construction giant Bilfinger Berger AG, Fru-Con searched for a signature project to jump-start a new division dedicated to building roads, bridges, and other civil projects.

    They found one in Toledo, a cable-stayed bridge with a glass-coated center pylon that would peak nearly as tall as the Owens-Illinois Inc. building. It would be named the Veterans' Glass City Skyway.

    But it wasn't going to be easy. Among the challenges: I-280 had to remain open to traffic, and the rerouted interstate would weave through the job site.

    Fru-Con didn't have the space to rely on traditional, ground-based cranes to move equipment from pier to pier. So the firm ordered two custom gantries that crawled from pier to pier, setting the bridge from above.

    The company to build them: Paolo de Nicola.

    Last month, workers, right, finished rebuilding the top of a pier that was damaged in the crane collapse. To the right of the pier is the new I-280 on-ramp for Front Street that will connect with the new bridge over the Maumee River. Last month, workers, right, finished rebuilding the top of a pier that was damaged in the crane collapse. To the right of the pier is the new I-280 on-ramp for Front Street that will connect with the new bridge over the Maumee River.
    Enlarge

    Known by its acronym PdN, the firm from northeastern Italy had made such "self-launching" gantry truss cranes for decades for bridge projects around the world.

    But even before PdN's $5.5 million cranes set a single bridge segment in Toledo, problems surfaced.

    PdN was three months late to deliver final parts to Toledo. That threatened Fru-Con's aggressive goal of finishing the project a year before ODOT required.

    Fru-Con would also complain to PdN about the parts after they arrived.

    Ironworkers had to cope with ill-fitting nuts and washers. Bolt holes didn't line up and had to be redrilled. Braces were too short and had to be lengthened by welding on additional steel. Rails didn't line up, requiring the removal and replacement of a 13-foot section of steel. And part of a rear-leg assembly was too bowed to fully retract.

    Fru-Con had expected the cranes to be assembled by Feb. 1, 2003. Instead, they weren't done until mid-July.

    When they were ready, none of the government's watchdog agencies inspected the cranes to ensure they were safe. Ohio's Division of Labor and Worker Safety inspected the job site, logging problems such as frayed extension cords and ineffective guardrails. But it didn't check the giant cranes, said agency spokesman Pieter Wykoff.

    OSHA didn't look at them either. Under the partnership agreement, OSHA did not plan to thoroughly inspect the work site until March, 2004. And, a former OSHA official told The Blade, even if the federal agency had checked the cranes earlier, it is unlikely inspectors would have detected problems.

    "Regardless of how often they were at the site, OSHA lacked the general expertise in the local Toledo office given the very specialized nature of the equipment and process," said safety consultant Jeff Brooks, former second-in-command of the local OSHA office.

    That left inspection of the crane to an engineering consulting firm in British Columbia hired by Fru-Con. That firm, Somerset Engineering Group, certified the cranes for use in August, 2003, noting, "Any required site modifications of the gantry system should be carried out to the specifications of Paolo de Nicola."

    By then, the state had given Fru-Con more incentives to beat the contract completion date. Under a deal inked in July, 2003, Fru-Con was set to net an additional $4.3 million for finishing the job by August, 2005 - 14 months early.

    But crane problems were slowing the project down. At one point, delays stretched to 36 work days, records show. Fru-Con told ODOT it was addressing "learning curve" issues and that it hoped "to make up time once [span] erection begins."

    Before the cranes' parts were even shipped to America, a debate arose about what would become a key issue in OSHA's investigation: proper anchoring.

    In December, 2002, Fru-Con's chief engineer, Chris Mealing, lobbied PdN to lessen required anchorage. In the thousands of records released to The Blade by ODOT, there is no written response from PdN to Mr. Mealing, and PdN has refused to comment for this story.

    The anchoring debate re-emerged before the first crane was tested on a southern abutment of the bridge.

    PdN engineer Andrea D'Elia, who had visited the work site in February, 2003, wrote to Mr. Mealing about disturbing pictures the Italian engineer received from the site that spring, as one of the cranes was being readied for its first test "launch" from a temporary wall, on the East Toledo side of the project.

    In a June 3, 2003, memo, Mr. D'Elia said the pictures showed that Fru-Con hadn't properly anchored the crane as he had recommended.

    Six weeks later, the Italian engineer again complained in an e-mail about the anchorings. He did the same thing in another e-mail, sent July 22, adding: "We did not received [sic] justification of the new restraints of our structure apart from some pictures."

    The next day, a PdN on-site engineer contacted Mr. D'Elia, in Italy, to tell him that one of the two anchorings moved one to two centimeters during the test launch. Mr. D'Elia faxed a memo to Mr. Mealing and his boss, Ian Sunderland - noting the movement "should not have happened at all."

    After warning of a potential collapse, he wrote: "This has happened after our reiterated warnings about the bad or uncertain conditions of the anchorings of our launcher you have prepared following your decision to modify the erection sequence in a different way than ours and under your responsibility."

    Reached last week at his office in Cittadella, Italy, Mr. D'Elia declined to elaborate on his complaints.

    Fru-Con officials declined through their spokesman to be interviewed. But in written responses to questions from The Blade, they insisted that "problems were encountered and immediately corrected" and, regardless, the anchoring system used on the temporary wall was different than used for regular launches from piers.

    Yet the memos drew a much different reaction from William McHenry, a Detroit lawyer who represents the estate of Mr. Clark, one of the workers who died of injuries in the collapse. Mr. McHenry said Fru-Con had "actual knowledge" that a deadly accident could happen.

    "Either the manufacturer's clairvoyant, or Fru-Con is ignoring a clear warning that should be a red flag for everybody," he said. "And I don't know that the manufacturer's clairvoyant, so I think Fru-Con's ignoring the obvious."

    It was Friday the 13th, February, 2004 - the final shift before the crane collapsed the following Monday.

    The crew of LG2 was ready to call it a day. One job remained: setting the front leg of the giant crane on a pier.

    Then the machine stopped working.

    It would take electricians until 8 p.m. to fix the problem. And workers weren't surprised.

    The machines repeatedly malfunctioned. Software glitches often idled the cranes. So did numerous electrical problems. At one point, Al Hedge, one of the operators, used a hair dryer to dry out a control box.

    In Fru-Con's complaints to PdN, it also cited a key drawback: The crane wasn't properly designed to handle the curves in the bridge. Despite being generally straight, the bridge's new road deck had to curve and bank at times, particularly in the area of the collapse.

    That forced workers to improvise, particularly with shims, or steel wedges stuffed between the legs and the piers to keep the crane balanced.

    While the use of shims is common in the industry, LG2's foreman, ironworker Joel Kolling, would later tell investigators shims had to be extensively used, and that affected anchoring of the two front legs.

    On each front leg, he said, shims covered one of two anchoring holes, so workers just used one anchor per leg.

    Shims would also be used on the rear legs - some stacked as high as 14 inches, Mr. Kolling said.

    In written statements to The Blade, Fru-Con said its use of shims "were as directed by PdN on-site representatives."

    In fact, the company said, the whole anchoring system was "developed with the PdN on-site representatives."

    "On-site PdN representatives directed the first three launches. All subsequent launches were the same in methodology and anchoring systems used," Fru-Con said.

    But three workers told investigators that, after PdN representatives returned to Italy, the rear legs weren't anchored at all.

    PdN's original specifications called for 16 separate anchors in the rear legs. But ironworker Mike Whipple told investigators that Fru-Con stopped "tying down" the crane's rear legs after the first span was completed. Mr. Hedge and fellow operator Mark Buck told ODOT investigators that Fru-Con stopped after the first three or four launches.

    According to an account of one interview: "Mr. Buck said that he asked his superintendent why and that he never got a good answer."

    Nothing was shared with the safety committee, either.

    Fru-Con told The Blade it never saw a need to share concerns about the cranes with the safety committee because it believed problems had been corrected. "There was no safety issue to take to the partnership," Fru-Con wrote in one statement.

    By the end of 2003, Fru-Con had demanded a $2.2 million refund from PdN - a third of the cranes' price - citing delays and design flaws.

    Michael S. Poles, a construction accident consultant based in West Hollywood, Calif., said contractors, in general, have a duty to either ensure safety concerns with equipment are addressed - or stop using the equipment.

    But, he said, many contractors, facing tight deadlines and costly late penalties, will risk worker safety instead of halting a project over questionable equipment.

    "Unequivocally, safety has got to come first," Mr. Poles said. "Unfortunately, it most often does take a back seat to fiscal considerations," he said.

    To the Ironworkers' Mr. Blaze, it's a duty for safety that extends to sharing information with workers.

    Mr. Blaze said contractors in such partnerships must share any concerns that could result in workers being hurt.

    "If we're going to be together, let's be together 100 percent," he said.

    Mr. Kolling said he and his co-workers would have liked to have been told about all the concerns, including PdN's memos warning of anchoring problems during the test-launch.

    "We might have said, 'We're not going to do it.' We might have walked off," he added.

    As it was, ironworkers didn't understand the complex physics behind the cranes and had to trust the project engineers, he said.

    And so, that Friday, Feb. 13, became just another shift, despite the malfunction.

    The crew returned Monday, Feb. 16, to finish the launch.

    After returning from lunch, as the crew began the final step to complete the launch, workers heard a strange noise, and in seconds, the crane toppled to the ground.

    They inspected the steel frame for fractures. They scoured a computer "black box" to see what moved when. They questioned dozens of workers to glean first-hand accounts.

    And after nearly six months of investigating, OSHA officials didn't say what they thought actually caused the collapse. But they blamed Fru-Con for not properly anchoring the crane.

    "OSHA evaluated numerous contributing factors, and the likelihood of these cranes collapsing would have been significantly diminished had the manufacturer's anchoring specifications been followed," area OSHA director Jule Jones told reporters in July.

    Ms. Jones, however, won't address any criticism of the agency's handling of cranes - why it didn't inspect the cranes before the collapse and whether it even had the expertise to do so. In refusing to comment, she cited the pending citations against Fru-Con.

    The agency cited the firm for four "willful" safety violations - the most serious it can levy - July 31 and issued a tentative fine of $280,000.

    OSHA also terminated the safety "partnership," saying Fru-Con didn't live up to the agreement.

    Fru-Con has appealed OSHA's findings, which has kept OSHA's case-file concealed from public view. In December, the Missouri firm filed a lawsuit against PdN in U.S. District Court in Toledo, claiming the Italian firm failed to design and furnish a safe crane.

    A year after the accident, Lucas County prosecutors and Toledo police continue sifting through evidence to look for criminal liability.

    And the project has stopped using the twin of the collapsed crane after that twin malfunctioned the first day it returned to duty in the fall. Now, with completion pushed back to the original date, three less-complicated trusses will be used, although it will mean closing parts of the highway from May to December.

    The families of the victims have hired lawyers and have been in settlement talks with Fru-Con. They have two years from the accident to file a lawsuit. So far, no family has.

    They have been left to ponder the lessons learned from the accident.

    Toledo lawyer Kevin Boissoneault, who represents injured Ironworker Roger Henneman and the estates of Mr. Moreau and Mr. Lipinski, returns to the issue of trust.

    "There was a lot of trust placed in that machine that perhaps, in hindsight, was misplaced."

    Contact Joe Mahr at: jmahr@theblade.com or 419-724-6180.



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