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AG issues subpoenas in fatal Big Dig collapse

/ Source: The Associated Press

At least 12 tons of concrete collapsed onto a passing car in a Big Dig tunnel, fatally crushing a newlywed and prompting renewed scrutiny of the costliest highway project in U.S. history, including a call Tuesday to treat the site as a crime scene that could lead to charges of negligent homicide.

The attorney general’s office already has begun issuing subpoenas to those involved in the design, manufacturing, testing, construction and oversight of the panels and tunnel.

“What we are looking at is anyone who had anything to do with what happened last night,” Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly said. “No one is going to be spared.”

The accident around 11 p.m. Monday was near the entrance to the Ted Williams Tunnel, which runs under Boston Harbor to Logan International Airport. The driver of the crushed car managed to crawl through a window to safety, but his wife died when four of massive concrete ceiling panels fell on the vehicle.

Gov. Mitt Romney said Tuesday he is taking legal action to oust the head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, comparing the situation to the replacement of former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown after Hurricane Katrina.

“People should not have to drive through the Turnpike tunnels with their fingers crossed,” Romney said. “Neither I nor anyone else could be or should be satisfied until we have new leadership at the Turnpike authority.”

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello said a steel “tieback” that had held a 40-foot section of ceiling over eastbound Interstate 90 gave way, letting the concrete slabs loose as the car drove beneath them.

“There was a snapping sound heard,” Amorello said. “One of the tile panels from the roof released. It caused a series of panels to be released.”

Amorello’s aides did not immediately return calls Tuesday to respond to the governor’s threat to take legal action to oust him.

Amorello said he had ordered a precautionary inspection of that tunnel as well because it has similar tiebacks, though a different ceiling structure. He said similar tiebacks were also used in 17 spots on the Interstate 90 section of the Big Dig and all were being checked.

“We feel awful about what happened last night,” Amorello said. “It’s an awful, awful tragedy. ... This is an awful situation that occurred.”

He appointed a state police major, two outside consultants and a team from the Federal Highway Administration to assist in the investigation.

Romney has long been critical of Amorello’s management of the Big Dig.

The $14 billion highway project, which buried Interstate 93 beneath downtown and extended the Massachusetts Turnpike to Logan Airport, has been criticized for years over construction problems and cost overruns. There have been water leaks and at least one incident when dirt and debris from an air shaft fell onto cars.

In May, prosecutors charged six current and former employees of a concrete supplier with fraud for allegedly concealing that some concrete delivered to the Big Dig was not freshly mixed.

Amorello said preliminary investigation shows that the quality of the concrete was not to blame for Monday’s accident.

The ceiling panels that fell had been erected in 1999. The steel tiebacks holding them were bolted to the tunnel roof overhead.

Amorello said the contractor was Modern Continental. Representatives of that company and project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino demanded quick answers Tuesday.

“We don’t need a six-month study. We need an immediate reaction and action by the different authorities so that we can reassure the public as they drive into the city or drive over to the airport that the tunnel is safe to go through,” he said.

Christy Mihos, an independent candidate for governor and former member of the Turnpike Authority Board and agency critic, urged Romney to seize control of the Turnpike’s day-to-day operations, calling the accident “my worst nightmare come true.”

Romney said he had asked his legal team to find a way to remove Amorello. He said the list of management failures has grown, called him secretive and uncooperative.

Last year, when Romney asked the state Supreme Judicial Court to issue an advisory opinion clarifying the governor’s ability to remove the head of authority, the court refused, saying it would issue no opinion because the question did not have legal urgency.

“Something happened today that we believe substantially improves our legal ability to remove Chairman Amorello,” Romney said Tuesday.

The victims were identified by State Police as newlyweds Milena Delvalle, 38, a native of Costa Rica, and Angel Delvalle, 46. Angel Delvalle was treated for minor injuries.

The two were headed to Logan Airport to pick up his brother and sister-in-law, who had been vacationing in his native Puerto Rico.