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Published September 16 2007

2nd set of eyes in bridge probe draws skepticism

ST. PAUL – Minnesota will get two sets of answers about why a busy interstate bridge broke apart in August – one from federal investigators and another from a consulting firm the state enlisted just hours after the collapse.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has described the two probes as running down parallel tracks and said he’ll put stock in both when deciding where blame lies and whom to hold accountable.

But some experts in disaster forensics question whether the company will present an unvarnished appraisal of what happened or erect a defense shield for the client cutting the check. Lawsuit pressure already is building from the collapse that killed 13 people and injured dozens more.

Documents released Friday by the Minnesota Department of Transportation show that it will pay Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. nearly $2 million for its work, which includes a requirement that the contractor “be available as an expert witness on behalf of the state in legal proceedings regarding the collapse.”

A crew from the Northbrook, Ill.-based firm was granted access to the Interstate 35W bridge wreckage within 24 hours of the Aug. 1 collapse and have been working alongside investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We want to make sure nothing is missed, everything is covered, everything is double checked,” Pawlenty said last month. “If there is somebody who has a theory that the NTSB missed something or somehow went off on a wrong technical theory, we want to make sure we have a parallel, redundant review so it is thorough beyond question.”

According to the contract, the company’s charge is to physically examine materials from the failed bridge, conduct computer modeling and document conditions present at the time of the collapse. The state expects the final report to cover everything from the original design to maintenance to corrosion to terrorism. The only timetable is that the report come after the NTSB announces its own findings, and the state gets to see draft and completed versions first.

In bold and italicized print, the state says the scope of work it laid out “is not to specifically lead the contractor’s investigation in a certain direction.”

Michael Koob, the project manager for WJE, said the firm’s goal is to conduct a “no stone left unturned” investigation, regardless of who hired it.

“We have a very strong national reputation,” Koob said in a telephone interview Saturday. “I think we are well known, that we are factual. And whatever the facts tell us, that’s what’s going to be reported in the end.”

The NTSB is taking a major role in the investigation, he said, adding that WJE is working jointly with NTSB to collect all the facts.

Transportation consultant Barry Sweedler, who ran NTSB investigations during a 30-year career there, has doubts about the company’s probe and said the findings must be viewed “with caution and a grain of salt.” He said he’d rely more on the NTSB’s report.

“I always look at who hires these supposed independent investigators. They both have access to all the facts. The question is how these facts are analyzed,” he said. “How free will they be to really criticize the people who are paying them?”

This isn’t the first contract Wiss, Janney, Elstner has had with Minnesota’s transportation agency. In 2006, the department hired the company as an expert witness for current and pending lawsuits regarding structural damage and property damage.

When something goes wrong, the company springs into action.

It has investigated bridge failures in Tennessee and California, falling concrete at Chicago’s famed Wrigley Field and the fatal Big Dig tunnel collapse in Boston.

It is known for having a top-notch laboratory and wide-ranging expertise in construction materials, structural systems and architectural designs.

“Chances are, we have seen it before – and if not, no firm is more qualified to break new ground in finding a solution,” the company’s Web site boasts.

A week after the collapse, the NTSB warned of a possible defect with the steel plates that hold beams together. Dan Dorgan, Minnesota’s top bridge engineer, wrote in an e-mail to other state agency leaders that Wiss, Janney, Elstner was “involved in the gusset plate finding.”

Former NTSB chairman Jim Burnett, who sat on the board from 1981 to 1991, has reservations about the investigative arrangement. He was surprised to learn that the company has had wide access to the site while lawyers representing collapse victims and their families have had to go to court and only received limited access.

“As a matter of practice, it’s better to have the investigation conducted by somebody who does not have to be at all dependent upon somebody who is under investigation,” Burnett said, referring to the state government. “They’re subjects to the investigation.”

He added, “If an investigation is truly independent, you only need one of them.”