Massachusetts' governor took control of inspections of a troubled Boston highway project, pledging that he would not reopen a tunnel where a woman was killed until engineers resolve problems with heavy concrete ceiling panels that collapsed.
Governor Mitt Romney said Friday that the tunnel could remain closed for weeks, until he is confident the 3-ton panels will not fall on motorists.
"And at this stage, you just have to cross your fingers that they don't come down," he said. "The people who are working in the tunnel are wearing hard hats for a reason."
Romney signed emergency legislation Friday giving him responsibility for tunnel inspections that had previously been overseen by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. The law, passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature late Thursday, also empowered Romney to decide when it will be safe for the public to use the tunnels.
After signing the bill, Romney met at the accident scene with federal and state investigators. The governor said he planned to speak to the Turnpike Authority's engineering and construction staff to clearly establish the lines of authority.
The National Transportation Safety Board, as well as federal and state law enforcement agencies, are overseeing investigations to determine the cause of the collapse and any potential criminal liability.
Inspectors looking for design or construction flaws have focused on bolts that hold the ceiling panels in place and may have contributed to the accident that killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle.
On Friday, Romney put the total number of potential problems in the tunnel where the fatality occurred at 84. He said two adjoining sections of the tunnel, as well as traffic ramps, had another 278 possible defects.
In addition, the governor said, there were 401 potential trouble spots in neighboring tunnels, but none was especially worrisome because those tunnels have different designs with greater redundancy. The ceiling panels in those tunnels are also much lighter than the 3-ton concrete panel that fell Monday night.
The governor said it was impossible to speculate when the tunnel would reopen.
"If miraculously every bolt was found to be in perfect shape, and everything was doing fine, why, it could be done very quickly," Romney said. "If, on the other hand, we find that there are problems throughout the system, ... it's probably a matter of weeks, not days."
The trouble spots are part of the city's so-called "Big Dig" project that rerouted Interstate 93 underground through the downtown area, eliminating an old overhead highway, and extended the Massachusetts Turnpike to Logan via a new harbor tunnel.
The 3-ton ceiling panels that collapsed were part of a false ceiling used to improve ventilation in the tunnel, as well as to protect the structure in case of fire or other catastrophe.
Attorney General Tom Reilly, who is spearheading the state criminal investigation, has said that both the contractor, Modern Continental Construction Co., and the project overseer, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, were told in 1999 that five initial ceiling bolts had broken free during testing. He questioned whether a prescribed fix had been made.
In a statement, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff defended the construction technique.
"Supporting concrete ceiling panels by anchoring bolts to the roof with epoxy adhesive is widely and successfully used throughout the construction industry," the company said.