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Tarp Fire Closes Pittsburgh Bridge

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

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A major bridge under renovation in Pittsburgh was shut down immediately following a fire that broke out Friday (Sept. 2), putting the structure at risk of collapse.

Although the exact cause of the fire is under investigation, a spark from equipment is thought to have ignited a tarp used for containment, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

No one was injured in the incident, but officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation indicated that heat from the blaze caused a 30-foot beam, or compression chord, to buckle.

If not replaced, the beam could fail, putting the whole structure at risk, PennDOT Executive Director Dan Cessna told the local paper.

“The bridge would be at risk for catastrophic failure,” Cessna said. “If you have a failure of a major chord like this, that’s the risk you have.”

The damaged chord required a thorough inspection and around-the-clock monitoring, PennDOT said in a statement issued Saturday (Sept. 3).

The bridge, a heavily traveled route connecting downtown Pittsburgh with the southern suburbs, has been closed to traffic. Approximately 54,000 drivers travel on the bridge each day, according to a local news station.

Sparks Ignite Tarp

The 88-year-old Liberty Bridge is a 26-span, 2,663-foot-long cantilever viaduct structure over the Monongahela River.

The bridge has been undergoing an $85 million rehabilitation that includes cleaning and recoating of all structural steel surfaces on the bridge and approaches. Joseph B. Fay of Tarentum, PA, was awarded the contract in October 2015. Fay subcontracted the coating work to Avalotis Corporation of Verona, PA. Work began in the spring.

The fire started at about 1 p.m. in a construction tarp used as containment for the painting operation and spread to plastic piping, according to Steve Cowan, a spokesman for PennDOT. The piping reportedly burned so hot that it melted a steel beam in the deck truss beneath the bridge.

Cessna noted that sparks would have been emitted as workers were cutting steel and using blowtorches, adding that as part of its investigation the agency would determine whether the tarp should have been fireproof.

“That’s something that we need to investigate,” he said. “I’ve been doing bridge repairs for 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Buckled Compression Member

City fire crews had extinguished the fire by 1:30 p.m., after which inspectors discovered the damage to the beam.

Although the damage is to a relatively “small, isolated area,” Cessna told the local CBS affiliate it is critical to the integrity of the structure. “[I]t’s a buckled compression member, and on a deck truss like this, any member like this that could be compromised could cause a catastrophic failure. So, this is a serious issue that we’re monitoring.”

By Sunday (Sept. 4), PennDOT officials revealed that they believe the bridge was just "minutes away" from collapsing, if the fire, said to have reached temperatures exceeding 1,200 degrees, had not been extinguished when it was.

“I can’t tell you for sure [when a collapse might have occurred], I just know it was very tight,” PennDOT district bridge engineer Lou Ruzzi told the Post-Gazette. “I can’t tell you if it was 10 minutes, 15 minutes ... definitely less than 30 minutes.”

Ruzzi explained that the fire had shrunk the beam, which put it 6 inches out of place and increased pressure on the remaining chords supporting the bridge. Describing the deformation as an "S shape," Ruzzi noted that when a steel element like this is no longer straight, stabilizing forces get redirected through other elements of the bridge. "The worst-case scenario was the whole section could fall,” he said.

In addition to vehicular travel being halted on the span, emergency and construction vehicles were removed to eliminate extra weight on the structure. Moreover, to maintain weight controls on the structure, materials and equipment for the repair will be delivered by a crane from the river instead of by construction trucks.

River traffic beneath the bridge was also halted for 20 hours as a result of the damage. “Even the smallest bump to the bridge could cause major problems given the critical damage to the compression chord,” PennDOT noted.

Repair Plan Underway

Since Friday, PennDOT engineers and inspectors worked with staff from Fay, consultant engineers and inspectors from SAI Consulting Engineers Inc., HDR Inc. and Michael Baker International, as well as faculty and research staff from Lehigh and Carnegie Mellon Universities, on investigating, stabilizing, inspecting, designing and preparing for the repair of the Liberty Bridge, Cessna said.

“The team has been focused around-the-clock on developing the most effective temporary repair to expedite the reopening of the bridge,” he added.

Consulting engineers reportedly delivered preliminary designs for the bridge repair overnight Friday into Saturday, and the contractor had already begun procuring the necessary materials for the repair.

At a news conference Sunday, PennDOT revealed its plan includes installing a plate over the damaged section and creating a strut to allow installation of a new beam on both sides of the weakened chord.

“We will ultimately be jacking the bridge to redistribute that load correctly back off of that damaged support,” Cessna said.

With a primary goal of having the bridge reopened for the morning rush hour on Monday (Sept. 12), the team will later determine if the repair is adequate for the long term or if another, permanent solution is required, the Post-Gazette noted.

“The Herculean efforts of our entire team continues around-the-clock.  This is not a textbook situation, so in developing a repair procedure is a theoretical debate regarding how to perform this work,” Cessna said in a statement.

Repair work reportedly began Sunday. The costs of the repairs will be covered by Fay's insurance company and not taxpayer dollars, Cessna noted.

Editor’s note: This story was one of our most popular of 2016, and ran in our Reader’s Choice issue on Dec. 28. Pittsburgh’s Liberty Bridge remained closed for 24 days while engineers and work crews worked to stabilize the span. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation fined contractor Joseph B. Fay Co. more than $3 million for the damage from the fire and the costs associated with the prolonged closure of the major city bridge. Work on the bridge has largely been suspended for the winter, but will resume in 2017.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Avalotis Corp.; Bridges; Containment; Fire; Health and safety; Joseph B. Fay Co.; Structural steel

Comment from K Swaby, (9/6/2016, 7:00 AM)

A similar incident happened several years ago to the Queensboro Bridge in New York

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/7/2016, 8:11 AM)

I've seen a tarp fire on another bridge repainting project as well. Fortunately no injuries or damage to the bridge. Apparently caused by electrical work being performed by an unrelated contractor

Comment from L. Steven Moore, (12/28/2016, 10:04 AM)

Why weren't fire retardant containment tarps required?

Comment from Gregory Stoner, (1/3/2017, 12:28 PM)

A fire watch would have worked as torch cutting was being used.

Comment from Raymond Merrill, (1/3/2017, 2:19 PM)

Why aren't all containment tarps fire retardant?!?!?!

Comment from M. Halliwell, (1/4/2017, 11:04 AM)

Raymond, you'd think they should be, but like anything else remotely safety related, it seems that the cost benefit analysis consists of: Will it cost more money? Yes. Have we always done it the old way? Yes. Did the old way work? Yes. Is the old way safe? Well, we haven't killed anyone or burned anything down yet. Result: keep using the old way until you rack up enough fines to add: will our next fine cost us more than the training and equipment for the new way? (Answer, generally no).

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