Fall of Nimitz Was Possibly Preventable, Engineer Says


A top State Department of Transportation engineer told The Times Friday that technology exists--and has existed for nearly 20 years--that might have prevented the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, where at least 33 people were killed during Tuesday’s earthquake.

The engineer, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, contradicted Caltrans chief engineer William E. Schaefer, who has repeatedly claimed that no such technology exists.

The engineer, a high-ranking seismic expert familiar with the Nimitz Freeway, is the first such expert within the transportation department to confirm claims made by private structural engineers that state highway officials failed to take adequate steps to strengthen roadway overpasses after the 1971 Sylmar quake, which collapsed freeway bridges in the San Fernando Valley and took 58 lives.


“The technology has been around since San Fernando,” said the engineer, who said the freeway columns were not strengthened because of “budget limitations” and “priority” considerations.

“There is only so much money,” said the engineer. “You just get caught in trying to spread the money to where it is best used.” The engineer estimated that it would cost $100,000 a column to strengthen the Nimitz Freeway. The roadway has more than 100 columns.

Caltrans is planning to bolster newer single-column freeway supports by wrapping the uprights with steel reinforcement bars, but Schaefer maintains that it is not known whether this method will work for the older multiple-column supports--such as those used on the double-deck Cypress Viaduct of the Nimitz Freeway that collapsed.

“We don’t have the technical knowledge, nor does it exist anywhere in the world,” Schaefer said earlier last week.

On Friday, Schaefer said the state has developed a steel jacket that can be wrapped around concrete columns to provide earthquake resistance for newer freeways. But that technique works only on those highways that are supported by rows of single columns, not roadways, such as the Nimitz, that rest upon multiple columns, he said.

“If we understood how to put those same steel jackets on the multiple-column structures, that probably would have worked,” Schaefer said. “We don’t know how to do that yet.”

Schaefer acknowledged that the problem of reinforcing multiple columns could have been solved by now--probably preventing the collapse on the Nimitz--if the department had made that dilemma its top priority after the Sylmar quake.

But with limited funds, giving first priority to structures such as the Nimitz would have meant delaying another project aimed at ensuring that roadbed sections on other elevated highways did not separate during quakes. That project, recently completed, prevented the collapse of an untold number of freeways during the 1987 Whittier earthquake, said James Roberts, chief of Caltrans’ structures division.

This roadbed project, costing $53.6 million, was envisioned as the first phase of a larger program to strengthen highway overpasses. It entailed tying roadbed sections of bridges together with steel cables. Caltrans said that roadbed work included the Nimitz.

A second phase, which is just beginning, called for strengthening single-column supports of freeway spans. Overpasses supported by multiple-column supports were to be done later.

But even as the first phase of the plan neared completion in 1985, and long before the second phase began, Caltrans assured the public that California’s bridges were safe.

Ray J. Zelinski, design engineer in charge of seismic concerns and reinforced concrete for Caltrans, said in an Aug. 8, 1985, news story: “We feel all the bridges will go through an event (earthquake) without collapsing.” Zelinski went on to say, according to the article, that even older bridges would withstand a catastrophic 8.3 earthquake--more than 30 times stronger than Tuesday’s temblor.

“I made the quote and I don’t deny it,” Zelinsky said Friday. “I felt very confident at the time.” He said that he had been instructed by superiors and attorneys not to comment further.

Gov. George Deukemjian expressed anger when he learned of the the Nimitz Freeway collapse, and his spokesman said the governor was assured by Caltrans that the freeways would withstand an earthquake of Tuesday’s magnitude. On Friday, Deukmejian’s chief of staff said the governor would have ordered the structure closed if he had known of the danger.

“But we were never told that,” Michael R. Frost said. “There was no indication ever that something like this would occur. Something obviously went very, very wrong and we’re determined to find out what it is, so we can prevent it from happening again.”

But the Professional Engineers in California Government said Friday in a scathing news release that if Deukmejian is looking for someone to blame, “he needn’t look any further than his own bathroom mirror.”

“Year after year, Caltrans requested funding to hire the staff needed to do its work,” said the organization, which represents state government engineers in salary negotiations. “Instead, the governor imposed hiring freezes and budget cutbacks. . . . No wonder that now, 18 years after the Sylmar quake, a . . . project to strengthen these bridges is only one-third complete.”