July 11, 2006

Woman killed in Boston tunnel

BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- Falling concrete slabs crushed a car inside one of the city's troubled Big Dig tunnels, killing a woman and tying up traffic Tuesday with another shutdown in the massive building project that has become a central route through the city.

The car's driver crawled out through a window but his passenger was killed when at least four of the 3-ton panels hit the vehicle, authorities said.

Inside the Interstate 90 connector tunnel, which runs beneath an industrial area of South Boston, the giant concrete slabs could be seen lying against the tunnel wall and across the roadway. It connects to the Ted Williams Tunnel, which goes under Boston Harbor to Logan airport.

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello said he didn't believe safety was compromised elsewhere in the tunnel system, but the damaged section was closed indefinitely for repairs and inspections.

The ceiling panels fell because a steel tieback, holding a 40-foot section of the ceiling in place, gave way, Amorello said.

"There was a snapping sound heard," Amorello said. "One of the tile panels from the roof released. It caused a series of panels to be released."

The ceiling panels were erected there in 1999 and the tiebacks were bolted to the tunnel roof overhead. Other parts of the system were the tiebacks are believed to have been used were being inspected.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino demanded quick answers.

"We don't need a six-month study. We need an immediate reaction and action by the different authorities so that we can reassure the public as they drive into the city or drive over to the airport that the tunnel is safe to go through," he said.

Amorello said the contractor was Modern Continental. Messages left Tuesday with the company seeking comment were not immediately returned.

"Any responsible party will be held accountable for what happened," Amorello said. "This is an unacceptable, horrible tragedy."

Gov. Mitt Romney cut short a vacation in New Hampshire and returned to Massachusetts on Tuesday to meet with his cabinet.

The $14 billion Big Dig highway project, which buried Interstate 93 beneath downtown and extended the Massachusetts Turnpike to Logan Airport, has been criticized for construction problems and cost overruns. There have been water leaks and at least one incident when dirt and debris from an air shaft fell onto cars.

In May, prosecutors charged six current and former employees of a concrete supplier with fraud for allegedly concealing that some concrete delivered to the Big Dig was not freshly mixed.

Amorello said preliminary investigation shows that the quality of the concrete was not to blame for the fatal accident Monday night. The ceiling collapse happened about 200 feet from the end of the connector tunnel, near the entrance to the Ted Williams Tunnel, which goes under Boston Harbor to the airport.

Christy Mihos, an independent candidate for governor and former member of the Turnpike Authority Board and agency critic, called the accident "my worst nightmare come true."

Mihos urged the governor to seize control of the Turnpike's day-to-day operations.

The shutdown Tuesday morning backed up traffic for miles as commuters tried to navigate the detours. Officials urged drivers, particularly those headed to Logan airport, to use public transit instead.

The victims were identified by State Police Tuesday as Milena Delvalle, 38, and Angel Delvalle, 46. Delvalle was treated for minor injuries.

"The driver's side stayed more intact than the passenger's side," State Police Maj. Michael Mucci said. "He was able to crawl out the window. There was only about 6 to 12 inches. But he was able to get through."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

This is the kind of thing that scares the crap out of me because it could happen anytime to anyone. I'm always a little freaked out when I go through tunnels because I'm always a little scared that the entire thing is going to come crashing down on my head. I know this is the sort of thing one should worry about as often as one should worry about being struck by lightning, but obviously, it happens. I like how the story explains that the tunnel is closed indefinitely, which it should be. But I've got to wonder about the person who would still want to drive through this thing, regardless. Because that's why they make the announcement about the closure, to inform the people who wouldn't realize that the tunnel collapsing automatically means no one can continue to use it. Shit, even if they said I could drive through it, I'd be like, "No thanks. I'll take the long way around this time."

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