Update on the “Big Crumble”

| July 17, 2006

UPDATE (07/18/06): It’s unclear from this new article what the relationship is between the 1,100 questionable “hangers” and the 1,400+ “bad bolts” mentioned below — but in either case, one gets the sense that the “Big Crumble” was literally an accident waiting to happen, and tragically the first such accident was fatal. Hat tip again to Drudge Report.

UPDATE (07/17/06): As I predicted below and in my previous post, the number of problems is growing rapidly — from the original finding of 66 “bad bolts” to now over 1,400. Hat tip to Drudge Report.

ORIGINAL POSTING: Ace of Spades has a link to this article:

BOSTON — It could take months to fix problems in the entire Big Dig highway system and reopen the roads, Gov. Mitt Romney said yesterday, the same day another ramp was closed to traffic because of what he called a “systemic failure.”

The work in the tunnel, a three-mile-long ramp, is expected to last at least several days and comes nearly a week after the collapse that crushed a car carrying Milena Del Valle, 38.

The governor said testing on bolts used to secure the heavy concrete panels in the most recently closed tunnel revealed dozens of potential problems.

“It looks like the problem is far more substantial than just an anomaly — that it is a systemic failure in the fastening system,” Romney said. “For the entire system to be repaired and safe is probably going to take at least a couple of months, and perhaps longer.”

This is pretty much in line with my earlier observations and follows a pattern (“Faulty Towers”) common in many troubled or failed large-scale information technology (IT) projects. The inspection-delay-and-repair cycle will likely go on until all substantive defects and risks have been flushed out. Given that there has already been one death — with resulting potential civil and even criminal liabilities — and the fact that the “bad bolts” problem apparently was known seven years ago, this is going to be slow and ultra-cautious, with lots of after-the-fact finger pointing. And, as noted in one of the articles linked to, Mass. Att’y Gen. Tom Reilly is treating the Big Crumble “as a crime scene.”

Here’s more on the 1999 report about bad bolts:

BOSTON (AP) — Problems with the anchors securing concrete slabs to the roof of a Big Dig tunnel where a motorist was crushed to death this week were identified in 1999 when five bolts failed during testing, the state attorney general said Wednesday.

Attorney General Tom Reilly, who is investigating whether manslaughter charges should be filed against anyone responsible for the 12 tons of falling ceiling panels, said the project overseer, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the contractor, Modern Continental, knew about the problem. He refused to provide details of the field report that described the problem.

“We have information and documentation that a problem with the anchor bolts in this area was identified in the fall of 1999,” Reilly said. “It was not only identified but there was a plan to address that problem and what we’re trying to determine right now is was that plan implemented.”

The largest advantage that the Big Crumble has over an IT project is that you can actually see, touch, and otherwise directly inspect it — and that civil engineering is far more rigorous and scientific a discipline than software engineering. The bad news is that it’s buried under Boston. And here’s the really bad news: there are now questions being raised as to whether the design itself was sufficiently robust:

BOSTON – Investigators probing the fatal collapse of a Big Dig tunnel ceiling have discovered documents showing there was a “substantial dispute” over whether the design of the tunnel was adequate to hold the weight of the ceiling panels, the attorney general said Monday.

Four of the 3-ton panels collapsed onto a car July 10, killing Milena Del Valle, 38, of Boston, and injuring her husband. Since then, engineers have found hundreds of places within the connector tunnel, a main passage to Boston’s Logan International Airport, where the bolts are not properly secured.

Attorney General Tom Reilly, who refused to give specifics, said he did not know how the dispute was resolved. He said the designer, the installer and Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the company overseeing the Big Dig project, were involved but would not say who raised the questions.

“There was a substantial dispute whether the design was adequate to hold the weight expected,” Reilly said.

This is going to get uglier before it gets better (much less solved). ..bruce..

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Category: Main, Project Management, The Big Crumble

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (1)

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  1. Evil Bruce says:

    What is amazing is how persistent the patterns of failure really are! Just today I am battling pin heads (Software folks – good ones too!) who seem to be compelled to make a very simple and direct complex a lot more complex. When confronted with what they are doing, I had one confess that they were “uncomfortable” with this approach because it seemed like something is missing.

    These are not your slack jaw IT goons that you find anywhere, they are top-flight enterprise grade folks who have made some groundbreaking software.

    I wonder if the software biz will ever undergo the IT equivalent of the “Arts & Crafts” movement, where a focus on the fundamentals and what really matters is most important. Let’s all hope so.