By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Digging into the Big Dig

Before I get to today’s coverage of the Big Dig tragedy, I want to call your attention to two stories published in the Boston Globe over the past few years — stories that, when combined with numerous other tales of malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance, go a long way toward explaining what happened Monday night.

The first, part of this series, was written by Raphael Lewis and Sean P. Murphy, and was published on Feb. 9, 2003. The focus is on $1.9 billion in extra expenses rung up by Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private firm that’s managing the project. But what comes through with stunning clarity — especially now — is how sloppy and rushed much of the work was. A few highlights:

Bechtel failed to heed warnings of problems in the design drawings, even from its own engineers, records and interviews reveal. Those deficiencies were usually fixed only after contractors discovered them, when it was far more expensive to make changes. In almost all cases, Bechtel solved the design problems by recommending that the state approve hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to contractors for additional work.

Crews found that Bechtel’s complicated scheme to support the Artery while excavation work proceeded below was not viable, records show. The discovery set off an eight-month odyssey of reengineering, overtime, and extra shifts to correct the designs.

A little more than a year after Cashman took on the Artery contract, the company’s managers were fed up. In April 1999, Jamie Doyle, Cashman’s project director, fired off a letter to Bechtel engineers calling the contract “unconstructible.” He blamed the problem on unfinished designs.

“With even a summary understanding of the history of the issues dealt with, it becomes clearly evident that the plans, at bid time, were at best, no more than 65 percent plans,” Doyle wrote. “The prudent bidder has a legal as well as moral right to expect that he is bidding on 100 percent plans.”

Bechtel officials insist the designs in the Cashman contract were adequate, and that contractors routinely complain to make extra money.

To my mind, a follow-up story is even more troubling — not because of anything specifically relating to Monday’s tragedy, but because it shows how misconceived the Big Dig was right from the start.

Written by Lewis and published on Dec. 19, 2004, the report shows that, in the early 1990s, planners made a crucial decision based on cost and lack of space: to abandon the industry-standard tunnel-within-a-tunnel method of construction and instead to go with one massive tunnel. The subhead told the tale: “Novel technique may be behind troubles.” (The tunnel was already leaking.) Here is the nut of Lewis’s story:

[B]y 1991, as the project moved from concept to construction, company engineers took a closer look at the narrow path for the new tunnel and confronted a sobering reality. To accommodate the inner tunnel box, they either had to reduce the size of the highway to six lanes, which would provide no improvement in traffic flow, compared with the elevated road. Or they would have to seize land under some of the most costly property in the United States, such as International Place or the Federal Reserve Bank.

So Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff recommended a novel approach never before used for a highway tunnel in this country. Instead of building a tight box within the slurry walls, the contractors would use the rough, pock-faced slurry walls as the tunnel’s only walls. That would save about 6 feet on either side, allowing for eight lanes of roadway. It would also save millions of dollars in land-taking and leave surrounding properties untouched.

State and federal officials agreed, work began, and for the next decade and a half that design decision would receive almost no attention amid the frenzy of construction that soon enveloped Boston. Even less heralded was the arcane, unprecedented challenge of adequately waterproofing 3 miles of tunnels with no interior walls.

With Attorney General Tom Reilly, U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, District Attorney Dan Conley and others beginning a criminal investigation, I suggest they take a close look at those two Globe reports. If a crime was committed, it was documented on the front page years ago.

Today’s coverage is generally excellent, but not nearly as important as the investigative work to come. The Globe recovered from a slow start to put together a comprehensive package beneath the six-column head “Mass. crisis of confidence.” The Herald also reports aggressively on the story, with a front-page splash that reads, “THEY SAID IT WAS SAFE.”

Two bits that I found especially chilling, the first from the Globe’s Scott Allen and Sean Murphy:

Civil engineers said the questions must go beyond the quality of workmanship to the tunnel’s design: Why were the concrete panels so heavy, weighing 2 1/2 to 3 tons apiece? Why were they there at all, since there was already a higher tunnel roof? And why did the failure of a single steel hanger send six to 10 of the slabs crashing down?…

“I can’t imagine anybody signing off on a design of suspending 3-ton concrete panels such that the failure of any one hanger would lead to 12 tons of concrete coming down on the highway,” said Steve Banzaert, who teaches a course in “spectacular failures in engineering” at MIT.

In the Herald, Casey Ross, Michele McPhee and Marie Szaniszlo report:

A 42-year-old laborer for the Big Dig said yesterday that after watching the “nonexistent safety testing” on the metal fasteners connecting slabs of concrete to tunnel ceilings, he warned his wife against traveling through the city’s tunnels.

The laborer, a Boston man who installed microsillica in the tunnels as the concrete slabs were installed, said that after the fasteners were welded overhead into the I-beams there were no tests done to determine if the steel was secure.

“There were guys on a scissor lift banging the fasteners with a hammer. If it didn’t pop out, they were on to the next one. I asked one of the guys, ‘Is that it?’ He goes, ‘Yup, that’s it.'”

The laborer’s version of safety checks was confirmed by an iron worker who also worked on the Big Dig. “They should have been using X-ray machines and pull tests. Most of the time, that was never done,” the iron worker said. Both workers requested anonymity because they continue to work for the contractors connected to the $14.6 billion project.

The Globe and the Herald both echo Gov. Mitt Romney in calling for the resignation of Massachusetts Turnpike chairman Matt Amorello. It’s hard to disagree. I thought Amorello comported himself well yesterday, and obviously the death of Milena Del Valle is not his fault. But the public has lost all confidence in the leadership of the Big Dig, so Amorello has to go, even if it’s just a symbolic gesture.

Still, I loved Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis’ take today:

With one sentence, during his bizarre encounter with the press yesterday, we were reminded just how shallow Gov. Mitt Romney truly is.

“Something happened today,” the Mittster said, his perfect hair strangely mussed, “that we believe substantially improves our legal ability to remove Chairman Amorello.”

Something? Something?

Is that all Milena Del Valle’s life amounted to in Mitt Romney’s eyes? “Something?”

The most embarrassing bit of coverage comes, not surprisingly, from Herald columnist Joe Fitzgerald, who warns that those pesky pols are going to take advantage of the tragedy by defeating the anti-gay-marriage amendment.

Finally, an example of the fog of journalism. In their piece on Angel Del Valle, the victim’s husband, the Globe’s Maria Cramer and John R. Ellement report:

Suddenly, in front of him, the ceiling began to give way. The noise was deafening.

He slammed on the brakes of his Buick sedan, but it was too late. Huge chunks of concrete and steel came crashing down on his car, nearly flattening it.

Here is the lead of Laura Crimaldi and Jessica Heslam’s story in the Herald:

With fresh wounds still on his forehead, the stunned husband of a Jamaica Plain mother crushed to death in Monday night’s Big Dig tunnel collapse said yesterday he swerved his car and sped up in vain to save his doting bride.

I have no idea who’s right. Maybe the accounts are not as inconsistent as they appear. And, of course, it’s a small detail. But it’s worth pointing out that the news media need to be especially careful about getting it right in the days and weeks ahead.

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  1. Adam

    giant piece of tunnel killing an innocent motorist equals conniving pols bowing to the interests of those militant, unamerican homosexuals -Joe Fitz is like the crazy old uncle who corners you at the family party and railing againt the government and telling you how everything was better when a pack of camels cost 15 cents and women didn’t work.

  2. Anonymous

    malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasanceDan, that’s wonderful! Alliteration and nonce words combined is exactly what I needed on a return to Reallity Land from the Jorge-Luis Borges mini-fest on the weekend.Thanks!Bill R

  3. Suldog

    The aftermath to this tragedy is already a hideous grab for political power.O’Reilly and Romney, while having legitimate grounds for doing most of what they are doing, are both making the most of their opportunities to grandstand. Spin doctors are making the rounds on “news” broadcasts in an attempt to portray one party or another as responsible/irresponsible.Meh. I dread telling people I’m from Massachusetts.

  4. Ron Newman

    Who is O’Reilly?

  5. Anonymous

    Tom Reilly is running for governor. He’s currently the Mass. Attorney General.

  6. Ron Newman

    I know who Reilly is, but suldog referred to someone else whom I’m unfamiliar with.

  7. Anonymous

    Hey man, I love your blog and admire the middle ground you take between the globe and the Herald. But your chastising both papers by telling them they need to get it right is hardly appropriate. First, I understand there was a significant language barrier, second we are talking about a guy who watched his wife die infront of him. I don’t think either paper got it wrong. They do what reporters do. They reported what they know, which in this case came from a man who suffered a significant emotional blow. Dan, rather than leap to the conclusion that one or both got it wrong, try to include the possibility that he told one thing to one paper, and something else to the other. From what I understand one paper interviewed him early the other later. He very easily could have remembered something during one interview that he didn’t recall during the other. Both papers deserve the benefit of the doubt in this case.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 5:41 — Why do you think I wrote, “Maybe the accounts are not as inconsistent as they appear”? I don’t think I chastised anyone.

  9. Anonymous

    Dan, I hate to keep harping on this but this is what you said, “the news media need to be especially careful about getting it right in the days and weeks ahead.” No offence, but duh? Taking the tone of a school marm with reporters who are seasoned shoe leather scribes IS slightly insulting. Escpecially coming from a professor. No ones attacking your intellect, or your critiques on media coverage. I just think there may be a lack of street experience leading you to the conclusion that one is right and one is wrong. I look at you as sort of the anti-Poynter. Saying “the media needs to get it right” is a very Poynter-esque thing to say. It’s like the sports comentator who says, “This team needs to put points on the board if they want to have any chance at winning this game.” Thats all. Otherwise I like your stuff and read the blog daily.

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Anon — “Especially coming from a professor.” Twenty-five years as a full-time reporter and one year at Northeastern, and suddenly I’m an academic who doesn’t know what reporting’s about, eh? Oh, well. I do appreciate your kind words, and I probably should have acknowledged that Angel Del Valle might have said different things to different people.

  11. Anonymous

    Good post. Just one quibble. I thought John Ellement’s first day story was incredibly well done, especially since the accident happened after 11 p.m. Ripping up the front page that late and redoing the paper is quite tough.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 9:53 — Yes, I agree, Ellement’s story was fine. But it was the #3 story on the page, after gay marriage and that alien houseplant in the Back Bay. If someone had just rearranged it to switch places with gay marriage, the day would have been saved. That would not have been tough at all. Again — speaking as someone with 25 years of experience!

  13. Suldog

    Sorry – I was thinking “Tom Reilly” and for some damned reason it came out of my fingers “O’Reilly”. Just a big dumb mistake on my part.Actually, I’ll give REILLY some credit for putting a hold on his ads that were supposed to start running. It’s the right thing to do, what with his high-profile involvement in this situation. Also, probably quite smart on his part, as he needn’t pay for a whole lot of publicity just now.

  14. BosPhotog

    Regarding the differing accounts of the driver, Angel DelValle in both papers. I am sure he did not hold a press conference, which means both papers may have interviewed him at different times. He may have said both accounts. He is probably extremely shaken up and maybe was talking and thinking on the fly….

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