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Published: Saturday, 2/9/2008

Decision pains injured Skyway worker

BY ERICA BLAKE
AND DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Nearly four years after Roger Henneman heard the terrifying twisting and crunching of metal as a crane collapsed around him at an East Toledo construction site, his emotional and physical pain remains acute.

Equally intense, Mr. Henneman says, is the frustrating feeling that companies involved in the accident at the I-280 Veterans' Glass City Skyway project continued "business as usual" afterward.

But yesterday, about a week after being notified that the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office had reached a dead end in its attempt to find criminal responsibility for the accident that injured Mr. Henneman and three co-workers and killed four others, the veteran ironworker said he understands the decision even though he doesn't like it.

Letters that Prosecutor Julia Bates and Toledo Police Chief Michael Navarre sent last week to Mr. Henneman, his injured colleagues, and relatives of the four who died in the Feb. 16, 2004, accident explain that the subsequent bankruptcy of the crane's Italian manufacturer, Paolo de Nicola, "made it far too difficult to pursue this case suc-cessfully.

"It has become virtually impossible to recover any of the relevant records, and extremely difficult to locate and interview the former employees," Mrs. Bates and Chief Navarre wrote.

Mr. Henneman, 47, vividly recalls his body being flung through the air like a "washrag" as the crane, known officially as a gantry truss, fell around him.

Mike Phillips, 42; Mike Moreau, 30; Robert Lipinski, Jr., 44, and Arden Clark II, 47, all fellow ironworkers, died either at the scene or shortly thereafter.

"People like myself are devastated for life. There are four guys dead. What's the end result? One company goes out of business, and Fru-Con continues to go on doing business," Mr. Henneman said.

"It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There's nothing that's changed. Yeah, I would like to see criminal charges."

On the brilliantly clear afternoon of Presidents' Day, 2004 - four years ago next Saturday - one of two 1,000-ton trusses being used to erect the East Toledo approach viaduct for the Skyway wrenched free of its moorings and plunged to the ground.

The cranes were by far the largest pieces of equipment in use on the landmark project.

A subsequent report by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration faulted Fru-Con for failing to ensure that the cranes were properly anchored to the viaduct's completed portion each time they were repositioned to build a new bridge span.

Fru-Con agreed to pay a $280,000 fine - the maximum $70,000 for each of four workplace-safety violations - after OSHA relented on an initial characterization of those violations as "willful," reducing them to "unclassified."

And the OSHA report did not specifically blame the collapse on inadequate anchoring.

But local officials vowed to scour records from Fru-Con and Paolo de Nicola to determine whether criminal responsibility for the crane collapse could be established.

Along with Toledo police, Mrs. Bates' office enlisted the aid of the Ohio Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation, OSHA, the University of Toledo's college of engineering, and the office of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) in pursuing the investigation.

A California engineering firm was hired to review documents and offer opinions on the gantry trusses' safety.

A Blade investigation found that even as Fru-Con was testing the huge cranes near the bridge site during the summer of 2003, Paolo de Nicola engineers sent e-mail warnings about inadequately anchoring them.

Fru-Con, in turn, complained about what it considered to be design flaws in the equipment.

A lawsuit Fru-Con filed in U.S. District Court against the manufacturer after the accident is still working its way through pretrial procedures.

John Weglian, chief of the special units division for the county prosecutor's office, said that criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless homicide were under consideration - charges that could have resulted in a $15,000 fine for each count had convictions been obtained.

But although thousands of both man-hours and dollars were spent on the investigation, the prosecutor's office found the crane-maker's 2005 bankruptcy to be an insurmountable obstacle.

"The company that made the piece of equipment is in Italy and is bankrupt - those are two important words," Mrs. Bates said.

"There was no way of knowing if we could find [company representatives], much less get the documents necessary," she added.

Through a spokesman, Miss Kaptur expressed disappointment with Mrs. Bates' decision, but said it was understandable.

"The good thing is that the families were able to recover from Fru-Con in their own actions," Steve Fought, a spokesman for Miss Kaptur, said yesterday, referring to more than $11 million in out-of-court settlements that the workers' families received.

"I think it was worth the effort [to investigate criminally]. It's just a difficult thing all the way around," he said.

Theresa Pollick, a spokesman for ODOT's district office in Bowling Green, said the decision not to pursue criminal prosecution is a matter among Lucas County, Fru-Con, and Paolo de Nicola's bankruptcy estate.

"ODOT has worked with the prosecutor's office to provide the information it requested," Ms. Pollick said.

"Our continued sympathy goes out to all who were affected by this tragedy."

Fru-Con, through a publicist, yesterday declined to comment on the prosecutor's decision.

The bridge project's death toll rose to five April 19, 2007, when a work platform upon which carpenter Andrew Burris, 36, of Curtice, was working broke loose from the bridge and fell 82 feet to the ground near Summit Street.

In October, OSHA cited Fru-Con for two "willful" and two "serious" violations associated with that accident and proposed a $150,000 fine.

Fru-Con's appeal of those findings is pending, Jule Hovi, the safety administration's area director in Toledo, said.

Other site inspections resulted in at least nine other OSHA citations against Fru-Con during the course of the $237 million Skyway project.

Nicole Moreau received the letter from the prosecutor's office Thursday, nine days before the anniversary of her son Mike's death.

Nothing that could be done in criminal court, Mrs. Moreau said, would help ease the pain of losing a loved one.

But she hoped that the companies involved would learn the lessons necessary to prevent future accidents.

"Be careful for those workers," she said tearfully.

"Money will not bring them back. You want those companies to learn."

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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