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Span Collapse Halts CA Project

Monday, January 26, 2015

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A "full investigation" is underway into the massive collapse of a 150-foot-long viaduct under construction as part of an embattled freeway project in California.

Already years behind schedule and tens of millions of dollars over budget, the controversial Willits Highway 101 Bypass Bridge section gave way without warning during a cement pour just after 2 p.m. local time Thursday (Jan. 22), injuring several workers and temporarily trapping two under tons of debris.

Steve Eberhard, The Willits News / Used with permission

The 150-foot section gave way during a concrete pour. A multiagency investigation is underway.

Work has been halted at the viaduct pending investigations by both the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the state occupational safety agency (Cal/OSHA).

$275M Bypass

The 5.9-mile overpass is part of a $275 million bypass that Caltrans is building to reroute Highway 101 around Willits, in Mendocino County. The project has been mired in protests, controversy and litigation for years over environmental issues, cost overruns and, lately, accusations of negligence in handling American Indian archaeological sites.

Steve Eberhard, The Willits News / Used with permission
Two workers were briefly trapped in the debris, and workers atop the bridge ran for their lives. Several workers were injured, but none of the injuries was life-threatening, officials said.

In 2012, Caltrans awarded a $107.97 million contract for the bypass to a joint venture of Flatiron West (a division of Colorado-based Flatiron Construction) and DeSilva Gates Construction. The contract was nearly $5 million less than Caltrans had estimated for the work, although project problems recently forced the agency to obtain an additional $64.7 million in supplemental project funds from the state.

The project includes 15 bridges and two interchanges, including a 6,000-foot bridge over a floodplain, according to project details. The project is about half complete, officials said in October.

But progress has been slow and erratic. Last summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers temporarily suspended Caltrans' construction permits at the site, saying the agency had "failed to complete mitigation site preparation actions in a timely manner."

Earlier, the Corps notified Caltrans of repeated violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act due to polluted runoff at the site, ABC News reported.


Flatiron West employees were placing concrete at the Willits Bypass earlier this month. The span collapsed Thursday during a concrete pour, Caltrans said.

The project's impact on federal wetlands "is so severe the U.S. Army Corps required Caltrans to restore 400 acres of other wetlands to compensate," in addition to "extensive environmental requirements" set by the state, ABC News reported.

Workers Freed

And all of that came before Thursday's failure.

In a Facebook post, Caltrans described the workers' injuries as "moderate to major," but they were not believed to be life-threatening.

The workers were not identified, and accounts of the number of injured varied. The California Highway Patrol reported five people injured; Flatiron Construction reported three. Caltrans referred reporters to Flatiron for updates on the workers' condition.

The company did not respond Friday (Jan. 23) to a request for information.

Steve Eberhard, The Willits News / Used with permission

Much of the span, including wet concrete, dropped into a creek. Environmental officials were assessing the damage. The project was already widely criticized for its environmental impact.

Two workers were initially trapped. One was able to free himself; the other was rescued by fire and construction crews and airlifted to a hospital, Little Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Carl Magann told The Press Democrat.

Falsework Collapse

Caltrans said workers from Flatiron had been pouring concrete when the steel-and-concrete falsework suddenly gave way. The falsework had been in place for months.

Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie told the Willits News that Flatiron had apparently completed one section of the span and moved on to the next when the first section, still wet, collapsed. The crews were pouring for the final box girders that make up the long spans of the viaduct, Frisbie told the newspaper.

Workers were on the structure when it gave way and recounted "running for their lives as the structure swayed and buckled beneath them," the newspaper said.

Head counts by Caltrans and Flatiron confirmed that no workers were missing.


In October, Caltrans said the project was half complete. But it remains years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. Caltrans blames the project's "numerous challenges" (which include lawsuits, protests and a stop-work order) for $64.7 million in supplemental costs.

Much of the wet span dropped directly into Haehl Creek, just upstream from where it meets Baechtel Creek, the Willits News reported. The creek's pH level near the debris was later measured at 11, high enough to quickly kill fish and other aquatic animals, country hazmat officials told the newspaper.

Environmental officials planned to search for dead fish and were reviewing options, including rerouting the creek.



Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Concrete; DOT; Government contracts; North America; OSHA; Program/Project Management; Roads/Highways

Comment from Gary Burke, (12/22/2015, 7:51 AM)

seems like a major fiasco!

Comment from peter gibson, (12/22/2015, 10:09 AM)

This is what happens in third world countries. Cant wait to see the final cause. This is ridiculous.

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