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Bridge work halts, probes begin

BAY ST. LOUIS — More questions than answers remained Friday as most officials declined to comment after Thursday’s Bay St. Louis bridge accident that killed two construction workers and injured seven others.

As rescuers found the body of a second victim late Friday afternoon, facts remained scarce about what actually happened when the workers were thrown off the bridge and into the bay.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation, which awarded the $266.8 million bridge construction contract, had little to say. Granite Archer Western, the joint construction venture building the bridge, offered scant information, as did the U.S. Department of Labor, responsible for investigating the accident.

The accident occurred Thursday afternoon when construction materials toppled off the top span of the bridge. Initial reports indicated a massive cage, or form, used to mix concrete materials had fallen off the northern span. The nine workers plummeted with it.

Harry Lee James, MDOT’s chief engineer, said Friday that he could neither confirm nor deny any cause for the accident.

“I was not there and my staff was not there,” he said. “The contractor needs to speak to that.”

“We’re investigating to find out what happened and why,” said Dan Galvin, a spokesman for Granite Archer Western in Watsonville, Calif. “We will have a mass safety meeting on Monday and see where we go from there.”

Work stopped on the project after the accident, and remained halted Friday. A U.S. Department of Labor official confirmed that a federal investigation had begun, and Granite Archer Western said the company decided independently to temporarily stop work.

Dan Fuqua, with the Department of Labor in Atlanta, said an investigation into the accident had been opened by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency of his department.

“OSHA is investigating and they have six months to complete their investigation,” he said. “Other than that, I can’t comment.”

DOT sources said it appeared unlikely that Thursday’s accident had compromised construction already completed on the bridge. The two south lanes were just opened last month, while work continued on the northern lanes.

“We are still being very hesitant with any information until the contractor speaks. But whatever happened did not impact the lanes that are already opened,” James said.

As for any possible damage to the north side, “Whatever has been done can be undone,” he said.

Meanwhile, it was learned that a partner company in the joint bridge venture was fined more than $76,000 by OSHA five years ago when a similar accident occurred on another of its work sites, killing two people.

Granite Archer Western is a joint venture between Granite Construction Co., of Watsonville, Calif., and Archer Western Contractors of Atlanta. Granite Construction is the major partner, with about 60 percent of the contract amount.

In 2002, Archer Western Contractors were building a water reclamation facility in Atlanta that entailed a formwork system used to pour concrete along the rock face of a 200-foot-deep shaft. Part of the formwork and a scaffold collapsed 70 feet above the floor of the shaft. Workers were thrown to the ground; two were killed and another was severely injured.

An OSHA investigation found that anchors required to secure the formwork system had been replaced with others of inferior size, reducing the support capability of the system.

The bridge was closed to traffic for a short time after the accident and then reopened. Traffic was flowing on Friday. But a civil engineering expert said such serious accidents invariably have other results.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they put a stop on this project for a few days,” said William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering and a bridge construction expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “I’m sure the insurance industry and governments are going to pore all over that bridge for the next couple of months.”

Ibbs said the accident will likely have other serious ramifications, including protracted lawsuits and worker compensation cases. With various insurance companies for contractors and subcontractors involved, “They’re going to start fighting like cats and dogs,” he said. “Everybody’s going to start pointing fingers at each other.”

Ibbs said he is unfamiliar with Archer Western, but does know Granite Construction and finds the company highly regarded in its field. “Granite Construction has a pristine reputation for job safety,” he said.

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