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Search begins for clues to Willits bridge collapse

A day after a section of the Willits Highway 101 bypass collapsed, injuring five construction workers, government officials began what could be a monthslong investigation to determine why the structure gave way.

“There’s a lot of activity,” Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie Jr. said as investigators from Caltrans and the state Occupational Safety and Health agency combed through a mass of splintered wood, twisted metal and concrete.

Frisbie said he does not know how long it will take to determine why the partially built 150-foot span collapsed nor how long it will be before Cal-OSHA allows Caltrans to clean up the mess and resume work on the mile-long viaduct, the longest bridge in the ?5.9-mile project.

As part of its investigation, Cal-OSHA will be talking to the contractors, Caltrans and witnesses. Investigations can take weeks or months, and the agency has up to six months to complete the investigation for this incident.

“They will take their time and make sure their investigation is thorough,” Cal-OSHA spokesman Peter Melton said.

The collapse is just the latest in a series of events - including protests, lawsuits and regulatory issues - that have plagued the Willits bypass project and increased its price tag by millions of dollars to an estimated $275 million.

“This project can’t catch a break,” Willits City Councilwoman Holly Madrigal said. She said some in the community have told her the project seems to have “bad juju.”

Critics of the project say it is not so much jinxed as it is an example of incompetence on the part of Caltrans, which has recently suffered a series of blows to its reputation, including for shoddy welds on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland.

“I can barely even fathom how there could be so much irresponsibility in the engineering and design of a project,” said Sara Grusky, a member of Friends of the Little Lake Valley, which has lobbied for a smaller project with fewer environmental impacts to the wetlands east of Willits.

Workers were pouring concrete into the framework of the bridge when it collapsed. Madrigal said a loud boom could be heard in the city as the section fell.

Eighteen people were working on top of the viaduct when it collapsed, said Little Lake Fire Protection District Chief Carl Magann. Two were briefly trapped under the rubble.

One climbed out on his own and refused treatment. The other had to be freed by emergency responders. He was flown to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for treatment, Magann said. Two other men suffered moderate injuries and were taken to Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits. A fifth man, who suffered minor injuries, was driven to the hospital in a car, he said.

Magann said it’s amazing no one was killed.

“Whoever looks out for construction workers blessed those gentlemen,” he said.

The identities of the injured workers - four of them employees of Colorado-based contractor Flatiron Construction - remain undisclosed. Magann said the fifth man worked for AECOM, a global construction management, engineering inspection and design firm.

East Valley Road was closed much of Friday as inspectors looked over the intact section of viaduct that crosses the road. It reopened about 9:30 p.m., Frisbie said. Work continued Friday on other sections of the project.

The bypass, about 60 percent completed, will move Highway 101 from the center of town to the east. It’s aimed at reducing traffic jams through the city’s downtown, but not everyone is in favor. Environmentalists say the project is too big and unnecessarily damages wetlands and Native American archaeological sites in the Little Lake Valley east of Willits. They continue to hope a northern junction will be reduced, which could save some wetlands from destruction.

The collapse has dumped concrete into a creek that runs through the wetlands. Wet concrete contains lime, which is toxic to fish and other aquatic wildlife. The stream was diverted to a nearby creek on Thursday night to limit damage, and biologists are in the process of evaluating the impacts of the spill.

State Fish and Wildlife warden Donald White said Friday that no dead fish were found in Haehl Creek near the bridge collapse.

Area officials and residents said that despite the project’s contentious nature, they did not think the collapse was caused by sabotage.

The bridge collapse was met locally with alarm, sadness and worry about the safety of the bypass.

Sara Mann, owner of two downtown businesses, called it “horrifying.”

“I’m shocked,” she said.

Some said that accidents are bound to happen from time to time and no one is to blame.

Others blamed Caltrans.

“It’s incompetence,” said Marty Arkelian, a logger and photographer who also dislikes the bypass’ intrusion into the formerly bucolic Little Lake Valley.

“I would take the traffic to have this valley back,” he said.

Staff Writer Matt Brown contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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