Bridge Crew Lacked Permit Before Fire: Pittsburgh Fire Chief

A contractor didn't obtain a key safety permit before welding caused plastic pipe and a construction tarp to burn on the Liberty Bridge, resulting in a 24-day shutdown of a primary artery into downtown Pittsburgh, the city's fire chief said.

Chief Darryl Jones contends Joseph B. Fay Co. was supposed to get the "hot" work permit before the Sept. 2 fire that damaged the bridge's structural steel, KDKA-TV reported Thursday. The $16 permit would have required a fire inspection, and for the contractor to have a "fire watcher" present with an extinguisher near any welding or other hazardous work, Jones said.

Instead, when hot slag dripped onto some PVC pipe, the flammable plastic burned along with the tarp.


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"We call that solid gasoline, because it's petroleum-based," Jones said of the pipe.

Company vice president Jim Wilkinson said Fay had a fire watcher, but wouldn't say if he had an extinguisher or other fire suppression equipment. The company's vice president of operations, Dennis Watkins, declined to discuss other specifics about the fire's cause citing an ongoing investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which probes workplace accidents.

The fire's heat bent a 30-foot steel chord - a key support beam - which put the bridge in danger of collapse. Fay consulted with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and other experts before deciding to straighten the chord and using hydraulic jacks to move a bridge a critical 1{ inches. That repair took longer than using temporary braces to buttress the bridge, but it will enable a permanent repair to be completed in the future without closing the bridge again.

The fire occurred during an $80 million rehabilitation project. The contractor hopes to open all lanes of the bridge for the winter by early November, and then return to finish the work in the spring.

PennDOT's contract with Fay calls for $213,000 to be deducted for each day the bridge was closed due to the fire. PennDOT is still calculating the cost of the temporary repair, which will also be deducted from the final payment for the bridge's rehab.

Company officials haven't disciplined anyone or fired any subcontractors due to the fire.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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