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Skeptics Raise Brow Over 2nd Investigator

Fri September 28, 2007 - Southeast Edition

ST. PAUL (AP) Minnesota will get two sets of answers about why a busy interstate bridge broke apart in August — one from federal investigators and another from a consulting firm the state enlisted just hours after the collapse.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has described the two probes as running down parallel tracks and said he’ll put stock in both when deciding where blame lies and who to hold accountable.

But some experts in disaster forensics question whether the company will present an unvarnished appraisal of what happened or erect a defense shield for the client cutting the check. Lawsuit pressure already is building from the collapse that killed 13 people and injured dozens more.

Minnesota Department of Transportation documents show it will pay Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. nearly $2 million for its work, which includes a requirement that the contractor “be available as an expert witness on behalf of the state in legal proceedings regarding the collapse.”

A crew from the Northbrook, Ill.-based firm was granted access to the Interstate 35W bridge wreckage within 24 hours of the Aug. 1 collapse and have been working alongside investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We want to make sure nothing is missed, everything is covered, everything is double checked,” Pawlenty said last month. “If there is somebody who has a theory that the NTSB missed something or somehow went off on a wrong technical theory, we want to make sure we have a parallel redundant review so it is thorough beyond question.”

According to the contract, the company’s charge is to physically examine materials from the failed bridge, conduct computer modeling and document conditions present at the time of the collapse. The state expects the final report to cover everything from the original design to maintenance to corrosion to terrorism. The only timetable is that the report come after the NTSB announces its own findings, and the state gets to see draft and completed versions first.

In bold and italicized print, the state says the scope of work it laid out “is not to specifically lead the contractor’s investigation in a certain direction.”

Wiss, Janney, Elstner spokeswoman Margaret Sullivan has referred Associated Press questions to the state transportation agency while insisting it “is an independent investigation.” A new interview request placed Friday went unanswered.

Transportation consultant Barry Sweedler, who ran NTSB investigations during a 30-year career there, has doubts about the company’s probe and said the findings must be viewed “with caution and a grain of salt.” He said he’d rely more on the NTSB’s report.

“I always look at who hires these supposed independent investigators. They both have access to all the facts. The question is how these facts are analyzed,” he said. “How free will they be to really criticize the people who are paying them?”

This isn’t the first contract Wiss, Janney, Elstner has had with Minnesota’s transportation agency. In 2006, the department hired the company as an expert witness for current and pending lawsuits regarding structural damage and property damage. When something goes wrong, the company springs into action. It has investigated bridge failures in Tennessee and California, falling concrete at Chicago’s famed Wrigley Field and the fatal Big Dig tunnel collapse in Boston.

It is known for having a top-notch laboratory and wide-ranging expertise in construction materials, structural systems and architectural designs.

“Chances are, we have seen it before — and if not, no firm is more qualified to break new ground in finding a solution,” the company’s Web site boasts.

A week after the collapse, the NTSB warned of a possible defect with the steel plates that hold beams together. Dan Dorgan, Minnesota’s top bridge engineer, wrote in an e-mail to other state agency leaders that Wiss, Janney, Elstner was “involved in the gusset plate finding.”

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