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Boston Tunnel Warning: 7 Years Ago

Seven years before falling concrete crushed a motorist to death inside one of Boston's Big Dig tunnels, a safety officer warned that the bolts could not possibly hold the heavy ceiling panels, according to a bluntly worded memo leaked to a newspaper.

John Keaveney wrote the memo in 1999 to one of his superiors at contractor Modern Continental Construction Co., saying he could not "comprehend how this structure can withhold the test of time."

"Should any innocent state worker or member of the public be seriously injured or even worse killed as a result, I feel that this would be something that would reflect Mentally and Emotionally upon me, and all who are trying to construct a quality Project," he wrote, according to a story Wednesday in The Boston Globe, whose reporter was mailed a copy of the memo.

In an interview with the Globe, Keaveney said his superiors at Modern Continental and representatives from Big Dig project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff assured him that such a system had been tested and was proven to work.

Andrew Paven, a spokesman for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, declined to comment Wednesday. A Modern Continental spokesman referred to an earlier statement in which the company said it was cooperating fully and was confident the work complied with plans and specifications.

Keaveney told the Globe that a question from a skeptical third-grade girl is what really caused him to start doubting the safety of the tunnel.

Since the accident July 10, other documents have come out showing that there were questions over the years about the reliability of the ceiling bolts. But Keaveney's memo is one of the bluntest and most emotional warnings to come to light. And Keaveney was the safety officer directly responsible for the tunnel where the accident took place.

Gov. Mitt Romney said that the disclosure "really made me feel a little ill," and he questioned why it had not triggered aggressive inspections.

"You shake your head and say, `Gosh, why didn't anybody go in there, particularly knowing the kind of information that was in those memos in the past?"' he said.

He said inspections since the July 10 accident in which panels fell and killed 39-year-old Milena Del Valle in her car have revealed problems throughout the $14.6 billion project, the most expensive highway project in U.S. history.

Investigators have been focusing their attention on the bolt-and-epoxy system holding up the ceiling panels, which weigh about three tons each.

The superior to whom Keaveney sent the memo, Robert Coutts, a senior project manager for Modern Continental, was on vacation and unavailable for comment, a family member told the newspaper. Keaveney did not immediately respond to a message left at his home by The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, a memo written in January 2000 noted "an apparent failure of the epoxy" for ceiling anchors being used in section of the tunnel where the concrete slabs fell, the Boston Herald reported. The memo was written on Massachusetts Turnpike Authority letterhead and was copied to the state's top Big Dig attorney at the time and a top project official for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. The letter said the discovery of the epoxy problems resulted in "repairs and additional testing."

The Herald reported that a separate memo that month indicated that bolt holes were not properly being cleaned. "The capacity of all of the other anchor bolts is in question and will need to be addressed," the memo said.

Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly is conducting a criminal investigation of the accident.

"Our investigators are poring through tens of thousands of documents as part of our ongoing investigation into the collapse," Reilly spokesman David Guarino said. "As the attorney general noted last week, those documents show a substantial dispute in 1999 and 2000 over the epoxy anchor system in that location. We are continuing our investigation to determine what actions, in any, were taken by the companies involved after that dispute."

Keaveney told the Globe his memo reflected concerns among ironworkers installing the ceiling and other Modern Continental employees. He wrote that the amount of weight being suspended from the ceiling appeared to be "excessive," given that the bolts were "only inserted into concrete with epoxy."

Keaveney, 43, was head of on-site safety in the tunnel where the woman died, the I-90 Connector. He has an engineering degree from University College Galway in Ireland. According to the Globe, his letter was mailed to a Globe reporter without Keaveney's knowledge.

Keaveney told the Globe that he really began to worry about the ceiling after a third-grade class from his hometown of Norwell came to visit the Big Dig for a tour in 1999. He showed the class some concrete ceiling panels and pointed to the bolts in the ceiling, explaining that the panels would one day hang from those bolts.

A third-grade girl raised her hand and asked him, "Will those things hold up the concrete?"

"It was like the (third-graders) had pointed out the emperor has no clothes," he said. "I said, 'Yes, it would hold,' but then I thought about it."

Keaveney's eyes welled with tears as spoke of how he blamed himself in part for Del Valle's death, the newspaper said.

"I failed to open my mouth. I failed to push the letter I wrote for results," he said. "I am partially responsible for the death of this mother."

Also Wednesday, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Francis X. Spina ruled that Romney can proceed with a scheduled hearing Thursday in his effort to oust Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello, who oversees the Big Dig project. Amorello, who is fighting to preserve his $223,000-a-year job, had filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the hearing.

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