With federal investigators poised to render their final verdict on what caused the Interstate 35W bridge to collapse, two private firms hired to work on the bridge were served with lawsuits Wednesday, the first in what is likely to be a wave of litigation from victims of the tragedy.
Preliminary findings by The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators have suggested that the bridge was doomed from the start by a design error in the thickness of gusset plates that failed catastrophically on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145.
The five-member board voting on its final findings by the close of business Friday.
But in lawsuits served Wednesday, bridge victims and their survivors allege that the consulting firm URS didn't properly inspect and evaluate the bridge and failed to convey the span's "dire condition" to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The department had hired URS from 2003 to 2007 to evaluate the aging bridge over the Mississippi River and recommend repairs.
The suits also allege that PCI, the contractor repaving the bridge the day it collapsed, was negligent in how it placed hundreds of tons of construction material on the bridge and removed sections of deck.
URS, based in San Francisco, did not return a call seeking comment, but lawyers for PCI, based in St. Michael, Minn., issued a statement saying the firm was "confident the NTSB report will exonerate it from any liability involving the collapse."
"Given the problems with the gusset plates, it was only a matter of time before the bridge collapsed," the statement said. "PCI just happened to be there when it did."
The NTSB investigation has focused on the gusset plates, which were strained by tons of concrete and steel added in two renovations -- as well as by 287 tons of construction materials on the bridge deck the day it collapsed.
Attorney Jim Schwebel, whose firm filed the lawsuits on behalf of survivors Linda Paul, Wilfred Wagner and Justin Mishler and relatives of Paul Eickstadt, who died in the collapse, said in an interview that there was "abundant evidence of the dire condition of this bridge."
He cited corrosion on one gusset plate and buckling on another.
"Bridges don't just collapse without warning. Like many things that collapse, they send out a lot of signals of the stress that they're under. The signals which this bridge sent out were undeniable," Schwebel said.
The suits, which are to be filed this morning in Hennepin County District Court, are the first filed by victims of the collapse, Schwebel said, adding that he expects there will be many more.
The suits seek compensation that would be separate from whatever plaintiffs may receive through a state bridge victims' compensation fund. Recoveries from that fund do not bar suits against private entities.
The suits argue that URS, under its contract, should have calculated how much force the troubled gusset plates could withstand. Because it did not, "URS failed to realize that the 1/2-inch thickness of gusset plates U10 and L11 was insufficient to carry the bridge loads," the suits say.
Don Flemming, a former state bridge engineer who works for URS, told an investigator hired by the Legislature this year that his firm didn't do an analysis of the gusset plates. "We basically assumed that the gusset plates were as designed and that they were designed to meet specifications," he said, according to a transcript from the investigation.
Flemming added later: "My assessment is that the cause of the collapse was not related to what we were doing or even what we would have recommended. ..."
Since January, MnDOT has been recalculating the gusset plates on steel-truss bridges statewide and has repaired or closed several of them.
The suits also say that PCI should have taken greater care when it put heavy construction loads on the bridge and removed large portions of the deck.
Kevin Gutknecht, MnDOT's communications director, said the department did not consider either URS or PCI in breach of their contracts. He said Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel and state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan flew to Washington on Wednesday for today's hearings.
The investigators' early findings, which are expected to form the basis of the board's final report, appear to validate the public posture taken by NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker, who announced in January that the blame could be traced to the bridge's designers, who more than 40 years ago erred in calculating the size of the bridge's key gusset plates.
Rosenker, a Republican, came under heavy criticism from U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and other Minnesota Democrats who said that the early emphasis on design flaws appeared to minimize maintenance and corrosion issues allegedly overlooked by budget-strapped state officials.
Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, praised the NTSB's work Wednesday, saying it has "set the highest standards for investigating transportation accidents in an unbiased, non-partisan and science-based manner."
But Oberstar added that no matter what the NTSB's final determination on the cause of the bridge collapse, he will continue to press for legislation to beef up bridge inspections and rebuild the nation's aging and underfunded transportation infrastructure.
Given the litigation concerning the bridge collapse, some Minnesota officials also are looking to see whether the NTSB says that original bridge designs should be reevaluated or recalculated before adding substantial new loads.
Hoping to 'go forward'
Linda Paul, one of the plaintiffs, suffered five fractured vertebrae, broken ribs, a crushed cheekbone and had to have her eye reset. When the bridge collapsed, she was driving for her job as a shop-at-home designer -- a job she isn't physically able to do anymore, she said in an interview Wednesday.
Her vision isn't entirely restored and she has pain doing certain tasks for more than an hour. She is collecting workers' compensation while she searches for a new job, and she and her husband have lost much of their retirement savings because of unexpected costs such as health insurance, which used to be covered by her job.
Paul said she's hoping for "just compensation" for her and others who may be filing lawsuits. "I cannot change what happened. I can only go forward," she said.
Staff writer James Eli Shiffer contributed to this report.