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Attorney General Calls Big Dig Tunnel Ceiling Collapse ...A Crime...

By Scott Allen

Declaring that a fatal tunnel ceiling collapse in Boston last summer was “a crime,“ Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said Monday that his office’s investigation into the July 10 death of Milena Del Valle has convinced him that people and companies connected with the tunnel’s construction should face manslaughter charges.

Reilly said the investigation, including a review of 400,000 pages of construction documents, suggests that the design and construction of the tunnel ceiling in the Interstate 90 connector was so reckless that it was criminal, a belief Reilly said he has had since first seeing the Del Valle family’s flattened car.

He said that project managers overseeing ceiling construction in 1999 knew that the bolts holding up the ceiling sometimes slipped out unexpectedly and that they pressed ahead with construction anyway. Likewise, he said, managers knew there were problems with the training of some workers putting up the ceiling, but they did not double-check their work. He also said the ceiling design - held up by epoxy bolts that essentially are super-glued to the tunnel roof - was questionable and illegal in some states today.

“They knew enough at some point to stop it, and they didn’t do it,” Reilly said during an afternoon press conference, referring to managers from Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the joint venture that oversaw the Big Dig project, and Modern Continental Construction Co., the firm that built the ceiling.

“The clock was ticking,” he said. “The fuse was lit. It was just a matter of time” before the ceiling collapsed.

“It is clear to me now that they didn’t do it right, and the consequences were grave,” Reilly said.

At his request, a special grand jury has been hearing witnesses since last month, and Reilly has not asked the grand jury to indict anyone.

He said he would first seek to recover the state’s financial damages due to the accident, which has cost at least $30 million in tunnel repair and investigation costs while causing headaches for drivers. The tunnel, a major route to Logan International Airport, has been partially closed for more than four months.

Reilly announced plans to file a civil lawsuit against 15 companies connected with the tunnel ceiling project, including Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. He declined to say how much money he wants from the lawsuit - expected to be filed in Suffolk Superior Court Tuesday instead of Monday, as his staff had expected - but a state official familiar with the case said he expected damages to exceed $150 million.

Normally, prosecutors wait for criminal cases to be concluded before filing a civil lawsuit, but Reilly said he didn’t want to wait because of a requirement in state law that lawsuits over faulty construction be filed within six years of the project’s completion. In the connector tunnel, a single ramp opened to the public on Nov. 29, 2000, making the sixth anniversary Wednesday. “I’m not personally sure that the opening of a ramp triggers it, but I am not taking any chances,” Reilly said.