Fatal Fall Leads Boston to Survey Highway System

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The head of the agency overseeing Boston's Big Dig highway project orders a review of the entire highway system after investigators looking into this week's fatal collapse of concrete ceiling slabs found 60 more questionable areas inside the same tunnel.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Boston, there's more trouble with the Big Dig Highway project after a fatal accident earlier this week. Investigators say they found at least 60 questionable areas in one of the Big Dig tunnels. They worry those areas may have the same problems that caused a three-ton piece of concrete to fall and kill a woman in a passing car Monday night. Today, Matt Amorello - chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority - tried to calm commuters fears.

Mr. MATT AMORELLO (Chairman, Massachusetts Turnpike Authority): What happened on Monday night was a tragedy that we are going to do everything possible to prevent. That's why the road is closed at this time. We will not reopen the road unless the Federal Highway Administration and the Turnpike Authority agree it is safe to do so.

NORRIS: That, again, was the chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. We're joined now by NPR's Tovia Smith. Tovia, what more can you tell us about the investigation?

TOVIA SMITH reporting:

Well, actually, this tunnel goes through a routine check every three years. And coincidentally, this very section was being reviewed right when this piece fell from the ceiling and killed this 38-year-old woman.

There was apparently no warning. Witnesses say there was a snapping sound, and then this piece just dropped down like a bomb, is how the victim's husband described it. He was driving - I should explain it - and because the piece fell on an angle, he lived to tell about it while his wife on the passenger side was killed.

So now, as you can imagine, there are a lot more inspectors inspecting. And they're telling us that it was this tieback system that gave way. These steel pieces that hold up these three-ton ceiling panels made of concrete. And crews have taken out similar tiles as a precaution since it happened.

And as inspectors are looking around, they're telling us now that they see lots of signs of bolts loosening, and they've spotted some gaps between the concrete slabs and the metal plates that hold them in place. And while they hope to reopen the tunnel today - as you just heard - the word now is the tunnel will be closed indefinitely.

Investigators are looking at this tunnel, the other tunnels, the entire metro roadway system - including roads that were not even part of the Big Dig project.

NORRIS: And if you follow the news in Boston, the Big Dig always seems to be in the headlines. And this is not the first time that they've had, that they've noted problems.

SMITH: Certainly not. You know this was a massive and complicated project. They put a long stretch of highway underneath downtown Boston, and it put a new tunnel under Boston harbor. And there have been lots of problems.

As you say, there have been massive cost overruns, this project has swelled to $15 billion. There have been serious questions about safety. There were incidences of small pieces of rock and debris raining down on passing cars. There were significant water leaks, then questions about the concrete that was used in the project - criminal charges against suppliers who were accused of using watered-down concrete.

And over the years, there's also been other concerns. As an example, I spoke with the former inspector general from Massachusetts, and he said that he warned about exactly this kind of problem with ceiling tiles in another tunnel eight years ago. And he says his warnings were met with - as he put it - a yawn.

Now officials can't tell if that issue or the other problems are related to this last incident, but federal and state officials are looking into whether contractors did what they were supposed to do. And the contractors say they did comply with all specs and they're cooperating with the investigation.

NORRIS: Just quickly, Tovia, before we let you go. Have you had a chance to talk to commuters?

SMITH: People are certainly concerned. I hear a lot of it - even Governor Mitt Romney acknowledged the fear - as he put it yesterday - you shouldn't have to go through the tunnel with your fingers crossed. He's talking about replacing the head of the agency that we heard from earlier. But the way I hear people talking, it's going to take a lot more than a personnel shuffle to make people feel safe driving through these tunnels.

NORRIS: Thank you, Tovia.

SMITH: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Tovia Smith in Boston.

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