Officials Scramble After Big Dig Lapse

Times Staff Writer

While much of this city worried Thursday about driving through the new underground highway system known as the Big Dig, the fallout from Monday’s fatal ceiling collapse in a connector tunnel escalated.

Gov. Mitt Romney announced he was filing emergency legislation to take control of the investigation into the accident, in which 12 tons of concrete crushed a woman to death as she rode to Logan International Airport with her husband. The Legislature quickly passed the Republican governor’s plan, and Romney said he would sign the measure today.

Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly pressed forward with a criminal case that could lead to manslaughter charges -- and already has brought subpoenas to the Big Dig’s major contractors.


The state’s two top legislative leaders joined a chorus seeking the ouster of the head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the agency that oversees the $14.6-billion project -- the largest urban infrastructure effort in American history. Chairman Matthew Amorello stated again that he intended to remain on the job.

Also Thursday, the state’s congressional delegation asked the National Transportation Safety Board to manage the inquiry, calling for “an immediate independent review.”

Amorello reiterated that at least 60 other tunnel defects had been identified since the accident.

And while Boston drivers wondered how the 40-foot ceiling panels above the eastbound lanes of the connector could have come loose and crashed to the ground, the state’s secretary of transportation said the westbound side’s ceiling was in even worse shape. The tunnel connector -- a crucial route to the airport -- remained closed indefinitely.

In a city that lived with 15 years of noise, grime and streets clogged with heavy equipment while an old elevated highway was replaced with a sleek subterranean system of roads and tunnels, the construction calamity also unleashed a crisis of public confidence.

“It undermines our faith in the system,” said Michael Szykolka, a tour guide who wore Colonial attire as he prepared to set off on Boston’s Freedom Trail.


“Not only would you think they could find minimally talented people with enough skills to construct it properly, but it is not a gift,” said Szykolka, 54. “It is paid for with our tax dollars, and we have the right to expect it to function safely.”

Officials from the primary contractor of the Big Dig, San Francisco-based Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, remained secluded with lawyers and other advisors, spokesman Andrew Paven said.

Paven declined to comment on the substance of the meetings, saying only: “We will fully cooperate with, and are fully cooperating with, investigators. At this point, it just wouldn’t be appropriate to comment any further.”

Paven said Bechtel took the lead in a joint venture set up specifically for a highway project championed in the 1980s by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and then-House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.).

The goal was to revitalize Boston by tearing down a creaky roadway that sliced through the city’s waterfront and cut off the historic North End neighborhood from the rest of the city. As huge amounts of earth were excavated and transferred onto small islands in the harbor, the effort quickly was dubbed the Big Dig.

Part of the vast project involved building a tunnel under the harbor to lead to Logan International. The conduit was intended to relieve congestion from two side-by-side older tunnels, the Sumner and the Callahan, that run between Logan and the North End. The third tunnel, on the south edge of Boston, was named for Red Sox great Ted Williams.


By January of this year, the entire Big Dig was open at last, although small areas of construction continued. The new route made it possible to drive under Boston in three minutes, about 17 minutes less than the speediest ride on the old Central Artery.

The Big Dig was riddled with problems, including leaking walls, minor floods and cost overruns that ran into the billions of dollars. As recently as May, six men who supplied concrete to the Big Dig were charged with providing substandard materials.

But the traffic transformation was nothing less than miraculous.

“I mostly have said ‘Thank you very much’ for that tunnel. It’s like they built it for me,” said Leigh Montville, who lives in Winthrop, almost next door to Logan airport.

On Monday night, Montville, a writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, was returning from a high school alumni golf tournament in Connecticut. About 11 p.m., he said, he was “on autopilot” as he entered the tunnel connector and he was surprised to encounter a small traffic backup.

Montville edged out from around a Federal Express truck. Two cars ahead, he saw a dark Buick buried under slabs of concrete.

“You see pictures of earthquakes or mudslides in California -- that’s what it looked like,” he said. “You could just see a fender sticking out.”


Montville plans to continue using the Big Dig, including the tunnel connector when it reopens. “I guess what happens, happens,” he said. “Let’s fix it up and let’s use the tunnel again.”

But Dan McNichol, author of the book “The Big Dig,” said he would no longer use the underground tunnel system unless he absolutely had to. McNichol was a Big Dig spokesman starting in 1993, soon after the groundbreaking. At that time, a Big Dig billboard near the start of the project informed drivers: “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day. If It Was, We’d Have Hired Their Contractors.”

Construction ran remarkably smoothly, McNichol said, calling the Big Dig “one of the safest projects in terms of heavy construction in the world.” The incident Monday that claimed the life of 38-year-old Milena Del Valle was “off the charts, and a worst-case scenario in that there was a fatality because of design, construction and/or materials -- and police say it could have been all three.”

McNichol saw the ceiling collapse as a betrayal: “It is just disgusting, because those tunnels are an extension of our government. You think of the subway tunnels in London -- people took refuge there from the bombing during World War II.”

The victim’s husband of two years, Angel, 46, sustained minor injuries in the accident. A grocery clerk in Boston’s Jamaica Plain district, he had made plans to hold his wife’s funeral today.

But he had to postpone because on Thursday the city’s medical examiner had not yet released her body.