OROVILLE, Calif. — A Fed Ex driver escaped serious injury and was counting his blessings Tuesday after the metal skeleton of a highway overpass under construction came crashing down on his truck.
An estimated 88 tons of steel beams and columns collapsed at about 7:15 a.m. PDT Tuesday on Highway 70 where it meets Highway 149.
A construction worker on top of the structure fell 50 feet and was seriously injured.
The sudden collapse created a spectacular mess in a quiet region of rolling hills in Butte County. It closed down traffic in both directions, triggered a secondary accident with injuries, and launched immediate investigations by public officials and the company building the overpass into what went wrong.
The collapse also left one very relieved Fed Ex driver recovering in Chico. Home from the hospital by Tuesday afternoon, Rob Sylvester hobbled out on crutches to his front lawn to recount his morning drive, a drive he takes every working day.
"I'm just the luckiest guy in the world," said Sylvester, 45, as he sat on his front porch Tuesday afternoon. The father of three escaped with nothing more serious than a sprained ankle.
The overpass was being built as part of a $105 million project by the California Department of Transportation. The work will turn the two-lane Highway 149 into a four-lane expressway linking highways 70 and 99, with freeway-to-freeway interchanges.
The overpass bridge itself does not yet exist. Instead, what fell was the project's "false work," the temporary steel and wood form that creates the base for pouring the permanent concrete overpass. False work structures are removed once the permanent concrete overpass is poured, cured, tested and tension-set, said Shelly Chernicki, a Caltrans spokeswoman.
Crews with HCI Constructors, the contractor doing the job, had been installing the false work for the past two weeks, working from opposite ends. They worked through the night Monday to join the scaffolding-like structure in the middle, high above Highway 70, Chernicki said.
The road was re-opened to traffic at 5 a.m. Tuesday.
At about 7:15 a.m. the false work section directly over Highway 70 suddenly caved in. An HCI employee was working on top of the overpass span Tuesday morning when it collapsed.
The worker, Jeffrey Doll, 39, of Olivehurst, fell 50 feet and suffered several broken bones. He was in serious condition Tuesday at Enloe Medical Center in Chico.
"He rode it 50 feet down to the ground," said Mark Dinger, a spokesman for Caltrans.
In a nearby accident, Carrie Underwood, 29 of Oroville, was injured when she ran into a Caltrans vehicle parked on the roadway.
As news crews in helicopters documented the damage, emergency crews worked frantically for two hours to free Sylvester from his Fed Ex truck.
For Sylvester, the nightmare unfolded so quickly, he couldn't remember what hit first.
"I'm sure I hit the brakes," he said. He remembered something like a box crashing through the windshield, then the dashboard heavy on his legs, the steering wheel crushing into his right side.
"It wasn't pleasant," said Sylvester, a four-year driver for the delivery company.
Sylvester couldn't see what happened but two 50-foot steel columns, 3,000 pounds each, had slammed down on the front of his truck and the back. Sylvester was trapped in a sliver of space between the two columns.
He took comfort in the coaxing of firefighters as they worked to free him. He thought of his kids. He wondered why he couldn't feel his legs. He hoped that he was going to live.
Caltrans and company officials said Tuesday they did not know why the span fell.
"Right now it's a pretty inexplicable accident," Dinger said. "We've never had something quite like this happen. We're searching for a cause."
HCI President Curtis Welz said he hoped to have a preliminary report on what happened by Wednesday morning. Crews were expected to work through the night Tuesday to clear the wreckage and open the road by morning.
Standing in the shadow of the collapse, Welz said his company had never experienced such a mishap.
When asked about several prior safety violations involving his firm, he declined to discuss specifics. He said his company has a strong safety record.
"We think it's excellent," Welz said.
Records with the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) indicate HCI has been cited for some worker safety violations in the past.
One case involved the construction of a light rail bridge near Folsom Boulevard in Sacramento in 2000. In that case, a trench was built with an improper slope that could have resulted in a worker injury, state inspectors found. The company appealed a $5,060 penalty in the case, but an appeals board later upheld it.
In addition, a joint venture involving HCI and two other companies was cited last year by Cal/OSHA for inadequately reporting some work-related injuries while working on the Bay Bridge.
As crews surveyed the damage in Tuesday's collapse, Sylvester's wife of 20 years, Carol, a teacher, met her husband at the hospital. After he was stitched up in a few places, his ankle braced, she told him he was the unluckiest guy who became the luckiest the next minute.
"I'm pretty much fine," said Sylvester, wearing a T-shirt that said, "Life is Good."
Sylvester's narrow escape prompted hospital employees to ask him to buy lottery tickets for them, he said.
He plans to return to work soon — and the same route.
"It will be interesting the next time I drive under that bridge," he said.
"Spread the word: Rob is all right."
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