Construction of the most expensive public works project in Louisiana’s history was shut down indefinitely Thursday as authorities began investigating a noon accident that sent 10 workers plunging into Lake Pontchartrain, leaving one dead, at the Interstate 10 twin spans.
The construction crew was preparing to pour concrete over a set of concrete beams extending about 130 feet past the completed section of the bridge when a beam beneath them collapsed about 11:45 a.m., dropping them and tons of construction debris more than 35 feet into the water below, authorities said.
Nine of the workers were rescued almost immediately by other workers with Boh Bros. Construction Co., the lead contractor on the $800 million project, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain said. The body of the 10th man, whose name has not been released, was trapped under equipment and materials at the bottom of the lake and was recovered after nightfall.
As he shivered near the Boh Bros. office, one of the workers said he and the others were standing on the beam when it gave way. The worker, who declined to give his name, said he was in the water about five minutes.
“I just remember a part of the bridge broke and falling into the water, ” he said.
By the time the workers were brought ashore at the company’s staging area near the foot of the St. Tammany entrance to the twin spans, the area was teeming with rescue workers. They were soon joined by an Acadian AirMed helicopter, which brought one worker to Lakeview Regional Medical Center near Mandeville, and boats from the Sheriff’s Office and Coast Guard that searched the waters for signs of the missing worker.
Three workers, including the man who was airlifted, were taken to hospitals in St. Tammany with injuries that did not appear to be life-threatening, Strain said. The other six refused medical treatment at the scene.
Concrete beam fails
Thursday’s collapse is the first serious accident in the two-year history of the project aimed at building a taller and stronger bridge to replace the Hurricane Katrina-damaged twin spans linking eastern New Orleans and the Slidell area.
The accident occurred as workers attempted to install a metal platform on a concrete beam running between two pillars that support the bridge, Strain said. The platform, which attaches to the outermost beams, is typically used as a work surface by crews as they use molds to build the concrete surface of the bridge and as they pour concrete over the seven beams that undergird each section of the bridge, he said. However, as the equipment was being installed Thursday, the beam twisted and crashed into the water, taking the workers with it, Strain said.
No one on the scene Thursday could say exactly why the beam failed, though investigations by the state Department of Transportation and Development, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Boh Brothers are under way.
“Rest assured the department will work quickly and efficiently with all parties in assessing the cause of this tragedy and to ensure it never happens again, ” said Gordon Nelson, assistant secretary of operations at the state highway department. “To that end, no work will proceed on this project until we do our investigation and get a revised safety plan from the contractor that demonstrates this will not happen again.”
Nelson did not say how long it would take for the investigation to be completed or what the delay might do to the planned 2012 opening of the 5 1/4-mile bridge.
Elizabeth Todd, a spokeswoman for OSHA, said the agency has opened an investigation into the incident but said a report could take up to six months to produce.
Crane lifts debris off body
When divers reached the wreckage, they discovered the bridge workers’ harnesses still attached to the metal platform, Strain said. The workers who were rescued must have been able to remove the full-body harnesses after they hit the water, he said.
By mid-afternoon, divers with the Sheriff’s Office discovered what they believed to be the body of the missing worker, but were unable to recover it because it was buried under a pile of heavy debris in the lake. Boh Bros. brought in a crane that could lift the obstruction.
The body was found under the fallen girder in about 10 feet of water. A crane arrived about 6 p.m. to remove the girder so the body could be recovered, said George Bonnett, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. By 6:30 p.m., the body had been recovered, he said.
Among the injured workers, the most serious injury appeared to be a broken arm, Strain said.
Two of the injured workers, ages 61 and 28, were taken to Slidell Memorial Hospital by ambulance about 1:20 p.m., where they were examined, hospital spokeswoman Karen Hales said. One of those workers had been carried away from the accident scene on a stretcher and was wearing a neck brace.
“We think they’ll both be treated and released, ” Hales said Thursday afternoon. “They’re both stable.”
A third worker, who was airlifted to Lakeview Regional Medical Center near Mandeville, was in stable condition, hospital spokeswoman Shay Lorenz said about 6 p.m. Lorenz would not provide the worker’s name, age or other identifying information, though other hospital staff said he had at least one broken bone and was partially sedated.
Shortly after divers found the worker’s body under water, Boh Brothers’ Corporate Safety Director Vic Gremillion said the company will be conducting its own investigation into the accident.
“Our deepest concern is for the injured employees and the family of the deceased employee, ” Gremillion said.