A long horizontal cut along a state Route 410 overpass’ railing may have been what caused the roughly 105-foot-long jersey barrier to fall during construction, killing a family of three April 13.
Police reports detailing interviews with workers at the construction site indicate that cut may have been what went wrong and caused the railing to fall onto Angeline Road East below.
The barrier hit a passing pickup truck and instantly killed Josh and Vanessa Ellis and their 8-month-old son, Hudson.
Bonney Lake said two subcontractors involved in the cutting have been removed from the state Route 410 sidewalk expansion project: Eugene, Oregon-based Staton Cos. and American Concrete Co. of Coburg, Oregon.
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Officials with American Concrete declined to comment Tuesday before a state Department of Labor and Industries investigation is finished. Staton officials did not return a News Tribune call Tuesday.
Police interviewed workers from both companies who were at the site when the accident happened. Police reports The News Tribune reviewed this week give this account:
One Staton employee told investigators the barrier should have been cut vertically every eight feet or so before horizontal cuts were done section by section, leaving a bit of concrete at the base to help hold things in place.
An excavator then would have snapped off each section to remove it, breaking the few inches of concrete left at the base.
Doing it that way, the employee said, crews would have known how deep to cut horizontally, before having to cut in the middle of the span, over traffic
If they cut too deeply on one of the first sections at the end of the barrier, the chunk would have fallen a few feet from the end of the overpass without much risk of damage.
Crews then could readjust how deep to cut by the time they got to the sections over the road and traffic below.
Also by the time they got to the center, they would have blocked the traffic while working above the road, he said.
Demolition plans included in the police reports seem to reinforce that the vertical cuts were supposed to be done first.
But a Staton foreman overseeing the cutting told police the plan was to do one long horizontal cut first, though it’s not clear why.
He said crews decided the horizontal cut would be 10 inches into the 16-inch width of the base of the barrier.
Then the excavator would grab the barrier from the top and they would cut vertically into the barrier to make an 8-foot-long section. The excavator would break off the piece.
Crews then would continue cutting and removing 8-foot chunks.
Next, during the vertical cuts and as the pieces were removed, traffic below would be controlled by flaggers, he said.
It was as the long horizontal cut was about to be finished that the entire middle part of the barrier crumbled onto the road below.
Flaggers told police they had been waiting for a call from the foreman to tell them when to stop traffic. That was supposed to happen when the workers started making vertical cuts.
Seeing only horizontal cuts were underway, the flaggers talked to each other as they watched the crews work. One flagger saw the Ellis’ pickup truck coming, but didn’t have time to warn the driver.
Bonney Lake City Administrator Don Morrison said Tuesday that a safety plan was supposed to be submitted to the city and reviewed.
“That never happened,” he said. “If that had been submitted and followed when they were doing the work, the road likely would have been closed, and the tragedy wouldn’t have happened.”
Asked if the city believed the horizontal cut caused the barrier to fall, or if officials had made other conclusions about the cause, Morrison said they had not and would not interpret the police reports.
“It’s subject to interpretation, but we’re not going to make some official interpretation of it,” he said. “People are going to have to come to their own conclusions.”
One problem was that the wrong excavator was delivered to the site, Morrison said. According to the demolition plan, it was supposed to have a “thumb” over the bucket, to help grab the concrete like a claw.
The one delivered didn’t have the attachment.
However, the worker charged with operating the excavator told police he wasn’t operating the machine at the time, because the wrong one had been delivered.
And he wasn’t supposed to operate it until the vertical cuts were made, which never happened.
Like the foreman, he said the plan was that the barrier was supposed to be cut horizontally, then vertically into smaller pieces. Once that happened, he would remove them when he had the right machine.
The American Concrete worker cutting the barrier told police he has 15 years of construction experience. It was his first day at the Bonney Lake site.
He “did not know what could’ve been done differently,” he said in his interview.
A Highmark project manager, the bridge-specialist company on the job, told police the company has done the same demolition plan with Staton before, and that the plan has an engineering stamp of approval.
“Obviously too much got cut,” he told police.
The state Department of Labor & Industries is investigating what happened. Its investigation could take up to six months.
Spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said Tuesday the agency doesn’t investigate public safety, but “we would want to know what happened and why, because there were a lot of workers on the job site who could have been exposed as well.”
The project’s contractor, WHH Nisqually Federal Services, resumed work Monday.
“Until that L&I report comes out, I really don’t have any comment about the plans or what actually took place that day,” CEO Bob Iyall said Tuesday. “Bonney Lake is our client, and we are going to proceed with the job, per their request.”