The I-35W Bridge, 5 Years On: The Whitewash Continues
Photo, Minnesota Daily
(Originally published Nov. 19, 2010.
Re-posted on the 5th anniversary of the collapse and cover-up).
Somehow, I missed the publication last week of a major new book on the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, which killed 13, injured more than 100 and kicked the Pawlenty Administration into a high-gear CYA operation.
The book by Barry LePatner, “Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward” has received almost no attention in the Twin Cities, other than a passing mention in a story in today’s Star Tribune about bonuses paid to the state’s chief bridge engineer after the collapse and a Nov. 11 blog post by the Strib’s Mike Kaszuba that I missed at the time.
(I can’t find that any mention of the new book has been made in The Pioneer Press or on local TV news programs. By far the best account is here, at Finance & Commerce, from Bill Clements. Sorry I missed it, Bill!) ). It is not surprising, however, that so little has been made here of a book by a prominent New York construction industry adviser and lawyer who critiques the whitewash by the National Transportation and Safety Board that found that no one in the Minnesota Department of Transportation, or in the office of the MnDOT Commissioner and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, or in the Pawlenty Administration had any culpability for the collapse. The Whitewash view of the bridge collapse is NOT ALLOWED in Minnesota. Pawlenty and his large and vocal cadres of PR flacks and taxpayer supported Spinmeisters brought heat against anyone who took that line, and quickly browbeat and intimidated most of the mainstream media, who succumbed to “bridge weariness,” stopped connecting dots and lapsed into he-said, she-said mumbo-jumbo.
Then came the Rush To Exoneration: In mid-January 2008, the chair of the NTSB, Dick-Cheney friend Mark Rosenker, ignored protocols (he “apologized” for going off the Rez later) and called a One Man press conference to declare that the collapse was an Act of God and flawed design, and that no one in Minnesota government — the engineers who ignored the concerns of outside experts for years or the politicians whose budget-cutting pressures led to cosmetic repairs rather than actual fixes — could be blamed. Rosenker was just One Ring of a Three Ring Circus that day: In a coordinated series of exculpatory press conferences, both Pawlenty and Molnau declared they were off the hook. And the press, by and large, bought it hook, line and sunken cars. It’s their view that gets destroyed in LePatner’s book.
When I went into the office the day after Rosenker’s presser, a supervisor asked me what I was going to write for my next day’s column. I told him I was writing about the NTSB Exoneration Fest. That’s when he told me that he had been sent “a memo” by management telling him that I was not allowed to write about it. I shrugged and said a newspaper columnist is supposed to write about what he or she thinks important and that I planned to go ahead and write the column. It was up to the editors, I said, to decide whether to publish it. That’s why they get the big bucks. At the end of the day, the editors formed a firing squad and summoned me to a meeting where I was given a good reaming. The boss never spoke to me again, until she told me my column was being discontinued. But the column, in the end, did appear, and here’s how it began (emphases were not added by me, but by the website where I found it):
“The head of the National Transportation Safety Board says inspections of the Interstate 35W bridge would not have found flaws in the design of the bridge, which opened in 1967. Such inspections would not have learned if Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or whether the moon is made of green cheese, either.
But the obsolete design of the bridge was known to be flawed long before the bridge fell into the Mississippi last Aug. 1, killing 13 and injuring 145. It was a “fracture critical” bridge, meaning that if any major part failed, the whole thing would fall. It was precisely that lack of redundancy that led worried officials to order stepped up inspections of the “structurally deficient” bridge, which carried 140,000 vehicles a day, pounded by far more traffic than was intended.
So NTSB board chairman Mark Rosenker was disingenuous, at best, when he said “routine” inspections would not have found a flaw in the bridge gussets that the NTSB is blaming for the collapse. “Routine?”
There was nothing “routine” about the bridge, including its inspections. It had so many problems that it was the most-inspected bridge in Minnesota and engineers were openly worried (according to a story in this paper Aug. 19) about the dangers of a collapse.
Inspections did find that many of the gussets were corroded and thinning, plus a host of other significant problems ranging from cracks and missing bolts to a tilted bridge pier and frozen expansion rollers.
The question isn’t whether the original designers were distracted by thoughts of Marilyn Monroe as they were planning the bridge. The question is why wasn’t the bridge closed, or fixed, by those in charge now?
But the gussets are a godsend to officials who want the public to believe they had no idea the bridge was in jeopardy and there was nothing that could have been done about it.
Neither statement is true.
The gussets are Minnesota’s O Ring. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, the flaw was a gasket called an O ring that failed in cold temperatures. But the O ring problem was known to the officials who crossed their fingers and launched the shuttle.
The O ring didn’t decide to launch itself, and the bridge didn’t decide to stay open to traffic, despite its many flaws.
There is plenty of blame to go around, and it is not partisan to say so. As I wrote the day after the bridge collapse, “both political parties have tried to govern on the cheap.” But the present administration is in the hands of a political philosophy that has not been willing to invest enough in the future while leaning, too heavily, on what was built in the past.
It’s Tim Pawlenty’s watch.
You can read the full column, here…
You know what? Looking back, I was right about what happened: CYA carried the day…
I’m not alone in believing that….
Here’s what Barry LePatner told Kaszuba last week:
… LePatner, citing the collapse as a symbol of the country’s infrastructure problems, said the NTSB ignored the findings of regular state maintenance reports, was “negatively influenced” by politics and wrongly exonerated the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The NTSB, said LePatner, “dismissed any connection between the bridge’s collapse and MnDOT’s maintenance of the bridge, or its poor condition.” He said the NTSB report “said nothing about MnDOT’s decision-making process or whether MnDOT had acted prudently. . .to protect the well-documented fragility of the bridge.”
“Based on the maintenance history of the [bridge’s] extensive wear and tear, corrosion, and signs of incipient failure for many years prior to the collapse, dismissing MnDOT of any responsibility for its collapse is inexcusable,” he said.
As far as politics, LePatner said: “It was no small matter that the head of MnDOT was Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s lieutenant governor, Carol Molnau, who herself was not an engineer experienced in infrastructure management.”
One of my heroes is Eugene McCarthy. As he used to say:
I’m sorry I was right.