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MTA, Contractor Settle Claims in Subway Blast

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The MTA and one of its top subway contractors, accused in a courtroom last month of having a “conscious disregard for safety,” have agreed to pay three welders $12.3 million as compensation for severe burns they suffered in a tunnel explosion three years ago.

The surprise settlement announced by attorney Mark Robinson Jr. was the largest ever won against the county transit agency or subway construction manager Parsons-Dillingham, and came after testimony that the two organizations failed to follow up on nearly 300 warnings that improperly stored canisters of oxygen and acetylene had created dangerous conditions in a tunnel beneath Vermont Boulevard.

Several jurors interviewed after the settlement was announced in court said they were shocked at testimony that described Parsons-Dillingham’s unwillingness to stop work when it discovered serious hazards in the tunnel, where welders for contractor Shea-Kiewit-Kenny were dismantling a digging machine in a haze of sparks, smoke and confusion.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard A. Ibanez said in an interview that he believed testimony showed Parsons-Dillingham and the MTA operated in a “callous disregard” for workers’ safety, adding: “I hope this accident that so mutilated these men will serve as a lesson to the organizations responsible that they must work better to create a safe environment that anticipates dangers.”

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Veteran welder Dale Gibson, who was burned over 95% of his body, will receive $8.5 million from Argonaut Insurance, which insured Parsons-Dillingham and the MTA. Fellow welder Andy Gutierrez, who was burned over 35% of his body, will receive $2.6 million, while welder Michael Willis, who was hurt less severely and considered to be a hero who saved his colleagues’ lives, will receive $1.25 million.

Had he been a juror, Ibanez said, he would have favored an award of as much as $25 million. “Can you imagine the horrible agony of burning alive? Burning alive!” he said.

Robert Cardwell, an attorney for the defendants, said the settlement included no admission of wrongdoing by either the MTA or Parsons-Dillingham. During the trial, he described the mistakes that led to the accident as “run-of-the-mill carelessness.”

A spokesman for the MTA said the county decided to settle because it feared a judgment from jurors might have been far greater.

Indeed, jurors said they were moved by testimony by Gibson, whose deeply scarred face, arms and hands bear witness to the events of the afternoon of July 18, 1994, when every tunnel worker’s nightmare came true in a blaze of fire.

In an interview, Gibson said he knew that it was unsafe for welders to leave acetylene tanks on their sides in the tunnel, but had been told each day that there would be a chance to remove them. He was worried, he said, but did not complain as he started work that day with Willis and Gutierrez. “If you say you won’t work in those conditions, they’ll find someone who will,” he said.

Late in the shift, he said, another worker accidentally cut through a heavy steel mounting bracket nearby; it fell on one of the discarded acetylene tanks, sparking a small fire that ignited hydraulic fluid, rags and hoses all around him. As he tried to put it out, Gibson said, one of the tanks exploded--sending him flying 12 feet to the floor of the tunnel, shattering his knee.

“When I woke up, I saw fire all around me--and could see Andy on fire too,” he said.

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Gibson said he could see flames on Gutierrez’s back, and watched Willis run over and put him in a bear hug in an attempt to extinguish the flames. “I’m sure he saved Andy’s life,” he said.

After they called for help on an intercom, the fire raged all around them--and Gibson said Gutierrez attempted to drag him backward out of danger, but was frustrated when his skin slipped off his hands.

Finally, they came to a rest 200 feet from the explosion, and heard rescuers coming close on a locomotive. But Gibson said they realized that rescuers had stopped when they approached the acrid smoke. Willis, who had run to guide firefighters toward his colleagues, saved the pair by yelling that they should keep going. “We yelled, ‘Get us out! Get us out!’ ”

Gibson said a surgeon at Torrance Memorial Hospital, Dr. Leslie Lee, told him he was going to die and led him in a prayer. But after he awoke from a medically induced coma nearly 10 surgeries and two months later, Gibson said Lee nursed him back to health, changing his bandages six hours a day, seven days a week, for months.

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Gibson, who has had about 40 surgeries by Lee and Dr. Charles Spenler costing $2 million paid by workers’ compensation, said he would spend some of the award on a new house for his mother and two brothers in Las Vegas.

He said he believed the accident proved that construction managers should not be in charge of production and safety. “They’ll always cut safety first if they’re behind,” he said.

After investigating the explosion, state workplace safety authorities cited Shea-Kiewit-Kenny for 15 violations of tunnel safety rules and fined the contractor $447,125. Five of the citations issued by Cal/OSHA were for “willful serious violations.” Each carries a penalty of $70,000. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also issued a $56,000 penalty. Shea-Kiewit-Kenny is appealing the fines.


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