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Published: Saturday, 6/25/2005

Kaptur seeks federal help in bridge probe

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A main segment of the I-280 Maumee River bridge is installed at the site of the February, 2004, crane collapse that killed four workers. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur has written to the Department of Labor, seeking their help in the criminal investigation. A main segment of the I-280 Maumee River bridge is installed at the site of the February, 2004, crane collapse that killed four workers. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur has written to the Department of Labor, seeking their help in the criminal investigation.
LONG / BLADE Enlarge

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) has asked the Labor Department to assist the Lucas County prosecutor's office in its ongoing criminal investigation of a crane collapse that killed four workers last year at the I-280 Maumee River bridge construction site.

"An investigation of criminal wrongdoing on a project of this magnitude is an enormous task for any local agency," Miss Kaptur wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao dated yesterday. "I believe that the Department of Labor can be of immeasurable assistance to the local entities in this pursuit."

And in remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives, Miss Kaptur said yesterday that she wants to know what state or federal inspections were conducted at the $220 million project site before the Feb. 16, 2004, accident that killed four members of Ironworkers Local 55 and injured four other men on the site.

"These men died, in my view, because of the apparent willful negligence of the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA," she said, referring to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which last month reached a $280,000 settlement of workplace safety violations with Fru-Con Construction Corp., the project contractor.

Labor Department officials yesterday confirmed receipt of the letter but declined to comment on it or on Miss Kaptur's floor remarks.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said yesterday she'd welcome any assistance she can get for her investigation, "especially the technical help" that an agency like the Labor Department could provide.

"This is a very complicated and complex situation, and we do not have the resources to accurately unravel this and get to the truth of what happened," Ms. Bates said.

John Weglian, chief of the prosecutor's special units division, is assigned "full time" to the case, Ms. Bates said, but he also is "full time" on the investigation of Maumee coin dealer Thomas Noe.

Ms. Bates said she is asking the Lucas County commissioners for additional attorneys to handle her office's robust work load, which would allow at least one person to be dedicated to the crane inquiry.

"You want [the investigation] to be thorough. It's not going very fast, but it's going," the prosecutor said yesterday.

One of two 900-ton gantry truss cranes being used to assemble the East Toledo approach spans for the I-280 project collapsed while being repositioned, crushing four men who were guiding that repositioning.

OSHA's ensuing investigation faulted Fru-Con for not ensuring that the horizontal crane was properly anchored during the repositioning process, known as launching, which allowed it to slip out of balance. The agency initially cited "willful" violations of workplace safety laws, but in a settlement agreement with the contractor that was announced last month, changed that characterization to "unclassified."

Miss Kaptur said she is baffled by OSHA's decision to drop the "willful" designation and upset by House leadership's denial of a request she made to amend a labor bill to formally direct the Labor Department to provide inspection records to local authorities.

"Pre-accident, what exactly did they do, what did they know? I want to know what the state authorities were doing too. Frankly, there should be a congressional hearing on this [accident]," she said.

This week, Fru-Con resumed work in the area where the crane collapse occurred. After a second, noninjury incident involving the twin crane during the launching process, Fru-Con and ODOT agreed that the self-launching system should be deactivated. The modified crane is being load-tested as a prerequisite for its continued operation.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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