A 400-ton steel-and-concrete bridge being built to support the Los Angeles-Long Beach light rail commuter line collapsed onto Firestone Boulevard on Tuesday morning, injuring two men in a pickup truck that was crushed by the debris and nicking a pedestrian who was hit by falling lumber.
The cause of the collapse at 9:10 a.m. was under investigation.
Early speculation focused on the possible failure of a timber-and-steel structure designed to support the span as construction proceeded in an unincorporated area of South Los Angeles.
An engineer working for Los Angeles County transit officials had voiced concerns about the adequacy of the structure on Firestone, near Graham Avenue, in an internal memo filed nine months ago.
Rescue workers and officials likened the damage to the aftermath of an earthquake, with the south end of the structure dropping in lean-to fashion.
A woman who lives a block away said she, in fact, thought a temblor had hit, after the shaking knocked perfume bottles off her dresser.
A sheriff’s deputy who witnessed the collapse said he initially presumed the two men in the pickup truck were killed.
Amazingly, Marcos Pacheco Ramirez and Alejandro Hernandez, who were en route to a gardening job, survived “by inches” when falling steel girders crushed the cab around them, rescue workers said. Pinned in the vehicle for about 45 minutes, they were freed when county Fire Department personnel cut though the roof of the cab and pried it open with the Jaws of Life.
They were taken to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center for relatively minor injuries, authorities said.
The pedestrian, James Wilson, walked away from the accident after he was struck in the leg by a piece of lumber. He was examined at the King hospital emergency room and released.
Three construction workers on the bridge “rode it down when it fell,” but were apparently unhurt, said Ann Reeves, a spokeswoman with the county Transportation Commission, the agency responsible for the $720-million project.
Reeves said insurance is expected to cover the loss. An official damage figure was not available, but the bridge is part of a contract totaling $9 million, officials said.
It was unclear, Reeves said, whether the incident will affect the July, 1990, target operating date.
Reeves said it was “lucky” the collapse had not occurred minutes earlier, when Firestone was thick with morning rush-hour traffic.
County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn echoed the same sentiments as he called for a review of similar projects.
“Could you imagine what would have happened if this was a school bus under there? It would have a been a major tragedy,” Hahn said as he visited the accident scene, which is in his district.
Hahn called for county engineers to conduct a probe of all bridge and road construction sites in unincorporated areas of the county. The inspection would pay particular attention to the light-rail project, the supervisor said.
The contractor on the bridge is Morrison-Knudsen Corp., an Idaho-based construction firm with local offices in Irvine. When completed, the span will carry four tracks--both northbound and southbound light-rail lines, as well as two Southern Pacific freight lines.
Morrison-Knudsen has more than $100 million worth of contracts on the project, more than any other contractor, including six of the project’s seven bridge structures.
Even with major firms like Morrison-Knudsen, “sometimes the work can be sloppy,” Hahn said.
A spokesman for Morrison-Knudsen declined comment Tuesday, referring questions to the Transportation Commission.
County officials said that they suspect the collapse occurred either because the temporary timber support structure failed or because there was a problem with the footing it was resting on.
According to public records, concerns about the quality of construction on the Firestone bridge, including possible soil settlement problems under proposed temporary timber supports, were expressed last June by a project design engineer.
It was not clear Tuesday how the problems were addressed. But the engineer, Steve Tayanipour, warned in an internal memo that a “poorly completed,” more costly project could result if the problems were not addressed. He also complained that the issues he had raised in meetings on the project were not being reflected in the official minutes.
Tayanipour could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and his supervisors referred inquiries to Transportation Commission officials.
John Adams, the commission’s manager of rail construction, acknowledged that Tayanipour had expressed concerns about the ability of the soil to support the timber structure. He said the commission investigation will include a review of how the engineer’s concerns were resolved.
Adams said he believes this to be an isolated incident. He pointed out that the project’s safety record is above the industry’s average.
‘Heard a Rumble’
When the bridge gave way Tuesday, Sheriff’s Deputy Gregory Nelson and three fellow deputies were in the parking lot of a mini-mall a block away. The officers were writing reports when they “heard a rumble” and watched the south end of bridge give way, snapping timbers and pulverizing the concrete traffic barriers beneath it.
The pickup truck was moving west--under the north end of the bridge--meaning it escaped the full force of the collapse. But even after deputies worked through the debris to the truck, Nelson said, they assumed at least Ramirez, the owner and driver, was dead.
Several minutes passed before someone managed to reach inside the cab and feel Ramirez’s pulse, Nelson said.
“I was desperate. I thought I’d stay forever,” said Hernandez, 19, still visibly shaken after he was treated at the hospital for injuries to his right arm and right foot and released.
Hernandez said, “I felt blessed” when he realized he would live.
Ramirez, 30, is Hernandez’s uncle. Relatives who spoke with Ramirez, the father of seven children, said he apparently was knocked unconscious by the impact and was in shock.
Doctors decided to keep Ramirez in the hospital overnight for observation of possible internal injuries. The steering wheel, relatives said, had been jammed against his abdomen.
Early thoughts of salvaging the structure were abandoned. Cleanup of the wreckage, which blocked Firestone all day, began Tuesday night. A demolition crew planned to break up the concrete structure into smaller chunks and remove them with a crane. The process was expected to take up to three days.
Commission officials offered motel accommodations to area residents bothered by the noise level of the cleanup.
Times staff writers Penelope McMillan, Henry Weinstein and Michael J. Ybarra contributed to this article.