Wake County

Construction workers file suit in fatal Wake Tech pedestrian bridge collapse

A worker leaves the scene after a pedestrian bridge that was under construction collapsed, killing one worker and injuring four others at Wake Tech's Northern Wake Campus in Raleigh, N.C. on November 13, 2014. The bridge spans 240 feet. The 140 foot center section collapsed.
A worker leaves the scene after a pedestrian bridge that was under construction collapsed, killing one worker and injuring four others at Wake Tech's Northern Wake Campus in Raleigh, N.C. on November 13, 2014. The bridge spans 240 feet. The 140 foot center section collapsed. News & Observer file photo

A Raleigh attorney has filed a lawsuit on behalf of construction workers who were killed or injured while pouring concrete onto the span of an unfinished pedestrian bridge that collapsed on Wake Tech’s Northern Wake Campus two years ago this month.

The complaint, filed in Wake County District Court, seeks financial damages in excess of $250,000 from two companies involved in the project: architectural and engineering firm Clark Nexsen and Structurlam Products Limited, a Canadian company that provided the laminated wood timbers for the bridge. Others named include Clark Nexsen structural engineer and architect Don Kranbuehl and Kris Spickler, a structural engineer with The Heavy Timber Group, a subsidiary of Structurlam Products.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four men who were pouring concrete across the span of the bridge when it collapsed. Jose Luis Rosales-Nava, a married father of three children, was killed, and Omar Lopez-Bahena, Carlos R. Chavez-Rojas and Jose M. Hernandez-Salinas were severely injured, with “the loss of body parts and the use of their body parts,” according to the suit.

Wake Technical Community College is not named in the complaint. Neither is the campus expansion project’s “construction manager at risk,” Skanska USA, an international construction company with offices in Durham.

Clark Nexsen spokesperson Cat Brutvan said Thursday that the company served as the “architect of record” on the project, but that all of the engineering services were performed and professionally sealed by licensed engineers with other companies.

“North Carolina and U.S. Department of Labor investigations identified engineers from one of those companies as responsible for the design,” Brutvan wrote in an email to The News and Observer.

The state Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Division concluded last spring that one of the project’s subcontractors, Stewart Engineering Inc., should have spotted design flaws while preparing drawings of the bridge. Stewart Engineering is not named in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says that Clark Nexsen hired Stewart Engineering to assist with the engineering design of the bridge and agreed by contract “to bear ultimate responsibility for preparing all the approved drawings, which included bridge drawings, during the schematic design phase.”

Spickler, with The Heavy Timber Group, could not be reached for comment.

The bridge collapsed on the morning of Nov. 13, 2014. A second, similar bridge on campus collapsed shortly after midnight without injuries.

Can you imagine what would have happened if a group of people had been walking across it?

Raleigh attorney Robert Zaytoun

State labor officials concluded in June 2015 that the collapses were caused by “design flaws” associated with notches in the bridge’s supporting girders, according to Labor Department spokesman Neal O’Briant. The girders were made of glulam, an engineered wood product that can be bent into curved shapes.

Robert Zaytoun, the Raleigh attorney who filed the lawsuit, says the state’s findings were similar to “the root cause” of his office’s analysis. The entire bridge spanned 140 feet across a ravine of protected trees and wetlands and was supported from underneath by steel cables that extended from the center “king’s post” and fed into the connecting notches.

Zaytoun said four workers, who were all employed by J.O. Concrete Services in Raleigh, weren’t supposed to be at the work site that day. “They were supposed to be at another job,” he said. “It was their first day on the job.”

The four men were pouring concrete across the bridge’s framework when, at 10:30 a.m., “the entire structure suddenly and violently collapsed and fell nearly 30 feet to the ground below amid thousands of pounds of wood, concrete and steel,” according to the lawsuit.

The top of one of the beams landed on Rosales-Nava and pressed him down with such force that a permanent imprint of his body was left on the concrete deck beneath him, according to the complaint. The dying man’s co-workers could see him and “repeatedly called out” to him that “help was on the way,” according to the complaint.

“They watched as he died before anyone could reach him and provide medical help,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the accident should have never happened. It says the lead structural engineers overseeing the project had “on numerous occasions” heard from others who had raised concerns about the potential weaknesses of the notched-end connections after reviewing the pedestrian bridges’ designs.

The project’s engineers submitted their designs to Skanska’s “high risk structures group” in Sweden where again there was concern that the glue laminated beams “were overstressed,” according to the complaint. The lawsuit says that the Swedish group recommended reinforcing the beams, but the campus project group “rejected the suggestions.”

The lawsuit says the project group responded: “Our analysis indicates the stresses to the glue laminate [beams] do not exceed allowable limits.”

The lawsuit claims the defendants failed to properly appreciate the risk and failed to warn others or take the necessary steps to correct obvious problems.

“The second bridge fell with only 25 percent of the weight it was designed to carry,” Zaytoun said in an interview this week. “Can you imagine what would have happened if a group of people had been walking across it?”

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald

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