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Published: Tuesday, 8/17/2004

Italy trip weighed in crane fatalities

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A prosecutor and police investigator may soon fly overseas to authenticate documentation on whether the Italian manufacturer warned that failure to correctly anchor its 900-ton construction crane used in the new I-280 bridge project could result in its collapse, The Blade has learned.

Four ironworkers were killed and four other men were injured Feb. 16 when the truss crane manufactured by Paolo de Nicola collapsed in East Toledo.

The bridge project s general contractor, Ballwin, Mo.-based Fru-Con Corp., has until Friday to decide whether to appeal four willful violations identified by the Toledo office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with the collapse. OSHA investigators said Fru-Con should be fined $280,000 because it failed to properly anchor the truss crane that was erecting approach ramps to the $220 million-plus Maumee River Crossing span most likely causing the deadly accident.

It is our belief that had this been properly anchored per the manufacturer s specifications, the likelihood of collapse would have been significantly diminished, said Jule Jones, head of OSHA s Toledo office.

OSHA s findings may offer only a partial picture of what happened, however, and the full report won t be released until its case is settled with Fru-Con. The Ohio Department of Transportation has refused to release its findings, saying they could be used as part of a lawsuit.

Fru-Con project manager Dave Herron said this month the company didn t know why the crane, known as LG2, collapsed.

Meanwhile, in a more serious, and rare criminal inquiry that could lead to jail time, investigators are trying to determine whether Fru-Con supervisors knew of the potentially deadly hazard and did nothing to prevent it, thereby illustrating a heedless indifference to the consequences.

Part of the investigation, the newspaper has learned, will center around documentation that may indicate whether anyone was warned about the possible dangers of an incorrect anchoring procedure.

Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre confirmed yesterday that a prosecutor and a police investigator may soon travel to Paolo de Nicola s headquarters in Italy to authenticate documentation. He would not discuss the contents of the documents, but he acknowledged they are important enough to send a police investigator and a prosecutor across the globe, even though Toledo is facing a projected $14 million shortfall next year.

The day the OSHA report came out, I had a lengthy conversation with [Lucas County prosecutor] Julia Bates about how we were going to proceed, Chief Navarre said. We felt that it would be absolutely necessary to interview those folks in Italy to authenticate documentation.

It could be months before they decide whether to take the case to a Lucas County grand jury, said John Weglian, chief of the prosecutor s special units division.

You have to look where the evidence is going to lead you, he said.

Among those items might be a report from Lehigh University, where specialists have studied steel fractures from the crumpled crane, or data from the crane s computerized control box, which may have recorded critical information about the crane s movements in the moments before its failure. Removed from the wreckage several days later, data from the control box may have been ruined by the collapse or by the weather.

We re still trying to determine what it s saying to us if it s saying anything to us, Toledo police Lt. Kevin Keel said.

The police investigation has run parallel to the Toledo OSHA office investigation into possible workplace violations.

Local OSHA officials presented their case to national authorities, including the agency s administrator, John Henshaw, in July, and the file was forwarded to the U.S. Justice Department for possible federal criminal charges, said Dick Tracy, assistant director of OSHA s Toledo office.

The case had not been forwarded to the local U.S. attorney s office by late last week, U.S. attorney Tom Karol said.

Cases that involve wilful violations leading to workers deaths generally are forwarded by OSHA to the U.S. Justice Department in Washington. But there, attorneys more often than not decline prosecuting such cases.

The reasons are varied. Some are as obvious as a lack of criminal intent. The Justice Department also has a limited number of attorneys, and a successful prosecution of an OSHA violation on a federal level results in a mere misdemeanor, while local prosecutors may pursue felonies.

There may be other reasons the criminal investigation ended up in local hands: politics and a sense of responsibility, said OSHA s Mr. Tracy.

The 315-foot truss crane was one of a pair of cranes erecting a signature project that will redraw Toledo s skyline. More than a year ahead of schedule, it had drawn praise from dignitaries. When it collapsed, it killed three ironworkers instantly and mortally wounded a fourth. It s unclear how many of the four injured will return to work.

This story goes right to the heart of the local people, Mr. Tracy said. The local community might not want to defer to federal people.

The day before OSHA announced the citations, Mr. Weglian and Lieutenant Keel met with four OSHA representatives to discuss OSHA s findings and consider whether they might fit part of Ohio s definition of involuntary manslaughter. That definition reads, in part: No person shall cause the death of another as a proximate result of the offender s committing a regulatory offense.

Upon conviction, the penalty is up to five years in prison.

In comparison, OSHA s charges are civil in nature, and are carried by a preponderance of the evidence, a much lower standard of proof. Rather than jail time, they carry possible fines $280,000 in this case.

More than dollars or jail time, though, both investigations could be a public relations nightmare for Fru-Con, a company that had boasted an otherwise solid safety record and competes for construction projects worldwide.

If the company decides to appeal the OSHA findings, its notice of contest ultimately reaches the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission, where the case would be heard by an administrative judge and possibly reviewed by its three-member commission.

Contact Robin Erb at:robinerb@theblade.comor 419-724-6133.



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