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The Big Dig’s deadly ‘safety’ rails

February 14, 2010

The Big Dig’s deadly ‘safety’ rails

Seven motorists have died after becoming entangled in railings that line parts of the Big Dig tunnels. Experts and a legal claim say design flaws make such tragedy all too likely.

By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff | February 14, 2010

On a hot July afternoon in 2005, State Trooper Vincent Cila lost control of his Harley-Davidson police motorcycle and struck the pedestrian handrail that lines the side of the Big Dig tunnel system near Logan Airport.

He wasn’t going very fast – 35 miles per hour or so. Another trooper traveling behind said he expected Cila to jump up, scraped and bruised perhaps, but certainly not badly injured.

Instead, Cila’s neck was broken and his left arm was sliced off at the shoulder when he struck the handrail’s vertical post. He was dead in seconds.

Cila is one of seven motorists and passengers who have been killed – most of them gruesomely dismembered – when they struck the handrails lining the Big Dig tunnel system between 2005 and 2008. One other person lost an arm and survived.

The handrails have been dubbed the “ginsu guardrails,” after the knives advertised on TV, by some police officers called to the grisly crashes.

Stretching along some 6 miles of the Big Dig system, the railings draw little attention from motorists focused on driving safely through the busy tunnels and highways. They sit on top of raised walkways lining the roads and were installed to prevent maintenance workers from falling into traffic.

But three roadside barrier and accident reconstruction professionals contacted by the Globe said the design is flawed in several respects:

The horizontal runners of the railings are too widely spaced, leaving room for a driver whose vehicle strikes the barrier body to get entangled, and then slammed into a post.

The railings line walkways a little less than 3 feet above the road, or roughly the height of a motorcycle seat or car window. The railings should sit higher, making it less likely that they will snag motorcyclists or car passengers partially forced from their vehicles in a collision, the specialists said.

The thin vertical posts have squared off corners that could act as a cutting edge, even at lower speeds, they said.

“That railing doesn’t appear to adhere to any crashworthy design I’ve seen, and it should,” said Dean Sicking, who is principal author of the standard national reference manual for evaluating the safety of roadside structures.

“It looks like an ornamental handrailing, without a lot of consideration for the safety of the design,” said Sicking, director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one of a handful of organizations that crash tests structures lining highways.

On a motorcycle, “if you hit a barrier like this at any speed, you are in trouble,” Sicking said in a phone interview. He examined photos of the handrails at the Globe’s request.

The handrail design is at the center of a lawsuit filed by Cila’s widow in 2006 in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston. The suit attributes the trooper’s death mainly to the design of the rectangular vertical posts supporting the handrails.

The posts, just three-quarters of an inch wide, have edges, which the suit contends can act like the cutting blades in a paper cutter.

Safety of drivers was never a concern in the construction of the handrails, according to the suit. Court filings in the case pull together police reports, accident reconstructions, affidavits from witnesses, and other details on the death of Cila and also of the other accident victims whose deaths had not previously been seen as part of a possible pattern. A trial is scheduled for September.

The defendants in the Cila lawsuit, which include the Massachusetts Turnpike, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and other Big Dig contractors, said in court filings that the handrailings and walkways complied with all state and federal regulations, as well as to industry standards.

And an engineer for the defendants insists that the design is appropriate. Robert D. Vanasse, a professional civil engineer with more than 40 years experience in highway design in construction, called the rectangular post design “standard and customary.”

He said, in an affidavit, that the rectangular edges in the Big Dig system had been rounded off and are not “sharp,” as the Cila suit alleges.

A top state transportation official also defended the overall design. “The barriers and handrail system are a safe system and comply with federal and state safety standards,” Frank Tramontozzi, chief engineer of the state Department of Transportation’s Highway Division, said in an interview.

Citing the ongoing litigation, Tramontozzi declined to talk about the Cila crash or the specifics of the claim that the design was flawed.

But he stressed that safety is the first concern for the Transportation Department, which has responsibility for the tunnels.

A lawyer for Tuttle Aluminum International Inc. of Indiana, the manufacturer of the handrails, said in an e-mail that the handrails were built to the specifications of Big Dig designers and passed three inspections.

The deaths involving handrails made up the majority of the traffic fatalities reported in Big Dig tunnels between 2005 and 2008. According to the Mass Department of Transportation, there were nine fatalities in the Big Dig Tunnels during that time frame, with seven involving handrails.

It is hard to put that number in perspective. The nine fatalities occurred in tunnels that cover 80 lane miles and recorded 360 million vehicle trips.

By contrast, the Pike had 21 fatalities from 2005 to 2008. The Pike stretches 1,180 lane miles and had 675 million vehicle trips.

State Police reports, reviewed by the Globe, make it clear that human error or recklessness contributed to the crashes. At least four of the drivers were exceeding the speed limit and four of the dead were riding motorcycles. Motorcycle crashes, specialists say, are much more likely to result in serious harm.

The other three crashes took the lives of a driver and two passengers, none of whom was wearing a seat belt. They were thrust partly out of windows, became ensnared in the handrails, and were torn out of the vehicles.

“I’ve never heard of people getting pulled out of a car before” by a handrail, said Sicking.

The lawsuit filed by Cila’s widow alleges that his death might have been avoided if another common railing design had been used.

Malcolm Ray, a roadside safety specialist for the plaintiff’s in the lawsuit, said in an affidavit that if the vertical posts in the Big Dig system had a smooth cylindrical design, Cila would have been injured, but “more likely than not would not have suffered the traumatic amputation of his left arm.” A pathologist for the plaintiff said in an affidavit that the cause of death was loss of blood.

“It is intuitively obvious even to a layperson that rectangular posts have sharper edges and are more prone to cut,” added Ray, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The lawsuit says pipe-style posts are commonly used elsewhere in Massachusetts and are far less treacherous. Such a design was considered, then abandoned, when the Big Dig was built, even though it was substantially cheaper, according to project memos and e-mails filed
in court.

A design using a cylindrical post handrail has been part of the MassHighway design specifications for more than 40 years, according to documents in the case file, and is used in the Sumner and Callahan tunnels, for example. In New York, the Lincoln Tunnel uses a pipe-style handrailing that starts about 4 feet off the road, said a spokeswoman.

Big Dig managers could have used a rounded pipe design for handrails in that system, too. In 1999, the manufacturer of the handrails tried to convince the Massachusetts Turnpike and Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which managed the project, that rounded vertical railings were the way to go.

Switching to the cylindrical pipe designs could have saved between nearly $300,000 to more than $700,000, Tuttle, the railing manufacturer, said in a 1999 memo. Officials at Modern agreed and fought for the change, according to Big Dig documents in the suit.

But for reasons that are not clear in the court documents, officials at Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff did not agree. The original design, with the edges, was used.

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff was a joint venture between Bechtel Corp. and Parsons Brinckerhoff that was formed to manage the Big Dig construction. The venture does not exist now. Spokesmen for Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff declined to comment because the matter is in litigation.

A review of reports by the Globe found common themes in several of the fatal crashes, including speed and the fact that all happened on curved portions of the roadway.

Christopher Maurer, a 19-year-old Navy sailor serving on the USS Constitution, had owned his powerful Honda CBR600 for only an hour or so when he entered a tunnel connecting the surface artery at Haymarket Square to the Callahan on May 30, 2008.

The road curved to the left and Maurer, driving about 40 miles per hour, lost control, struck the pedestrian handrail, and died, according to police reports.

His father, Sam, a civil engineer in Kansas whose work includes crash reconstructions, said he was disturbed that the railings used thin vertical posts. The mourning father, in town recently for the dedication of a library in his son’s name at the USS Constitution, said, “I would do anything to keep any father from experiencing this.”

Even in crashes in which the driver was clearly at fault, the victim might have survived if the railings had been designed differently, documents suggest.

Brian P. Bartlett, a 26-year-old former star wrestler at Boston College High School and Bridgewater State, exited the Sumner Tunnel in his Mercedes-Benz at about 100 miles per hour near midnight on Jan. 31, 2008.

The Hanover resident, who was not wearing a seat belt, lost control, and struck a Jersey barrier. He was thrown out of the car, became entangled in the railing, and was mutilated. Three passengers, wearing seat belts, suffered relatively minor injuries.

Despite the speed, despite not wearing a seat belt, he might have lived if it were not for the pedestrian railing, State Trooper Timothy Dowd wrote in a crash reconstruction report.

“The railing extracted Bartlett from the vehicle,” he wrote. “If this railing was not located on top of the Jersey barrier, Bartlett most likely would have remained in the vehicle. Bartlett’s injury most likely would have been less severe.”

The defendants represent a cross section of the major and relatively minor players in the construction of the Central Artery and Ted Williams Tunnel. Other defendants are: Bechtel Corp., Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc., Gannett Fleming Inc., Modern Continental Construction Co. Inc., GMT Architects Inc., and Saugus Construction Corp.

The Cila lawsuit alleges wrongful death, gross negligence, and pain and suffering for all the defendants and breach of warranties against Modern, Tuttle, and Saugus.

Other defendants declined to comment because the matter is in court, or did not return calls.

Also named in the suit was Nathan Durawa, who was driving in front of Cila and allegedly slowed or stopped, causing Cila to brake and lose control. Durawa settled for the insurance policy limit of $20,000, according to his lawyer.

Sicking and two other specialists contacted by the Globe said the railings could have been designed in way that took more account of driver safety. For instance, raising the Jersey barriers from the current 32 inches would make it more likely a motorcyclist would skid along the concrete barrier, rather than slam into one of the verticalrailing posts.

The other specialists raised questions about the overall design of the Big Dig railings. They are Kristopher Seluga, a forensic engineer for Technology Associates in Stamford, Conn., who does accident reconstructions, and Joseph Kanianthra, a consultant and retired vehicle safety administrator for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

The railing height is seen as a particular hazard for motorcyclists. Clay Gabler, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who has authored studies on motorcycle crashes, told the Globe that the odds of a motorcyclist getting killed in a crash climb dramatically if they hit a metal barrier with posts, rather than a concrete barrier.

The Big Dig system has a hybrid system, with elements of both types of
barrier, he said, after examining photos.

Cila’s crash happened as the 45-year-old father of two and Wakefield resident was driving a motorcycle to a repair shop in Dorchester on July 22, 2005.

He was negotiating a twisty bit of Big Dig roadway near Logan Airport. The Mass. Pike westbound Exit 24 offramp eventually connects with Interstate 93. The road climbs, then drops and curves, making it difficult to see far ahead.

Cila’s Harley was sandwiched between two vehicles. In front was a Ford Expedition driven by Durawa, of Edgartown, while behind was State Trooper Kevin Poor, who planned to give Cila a ride back from the repair shop.

Durawa noticed the two State Police vehicles and made sure he was under the speed limit of 45 miles per hour, he said in a deposition.

“When I saw [Cila] driving behind us in my rear view mirror, he was smiling. I was thinking to myself what a nice day to ride,” Durawa later told a State Police investigator.

The three vehicles had just left the tunnel where Exit 25 splits off to South Boston when Cila, driving at a moderate speed of 35 miles per hour or so, according to the accident reconstruction report, suddenly tapped his brakes twice. He fish-tailed and hit the Jersey barriers, at about 20 miles per hour.

Cila struck the vertical handrail post on top of the barrier, according to the police reconstruction. His left arm was severed and he suffered a broken neck and chest trauma.

The bike, riderless, careened down the road, lights and siren flashing.

Poor, trailing by three car lengths, was stunned. “I expected when I first went to check on him to see him scraped up,” he said in a report.

Durawa ran back to Cila, who was lying facedown in the road, and helped apply a tourniquet to the arm with another trooper who had showed up. A doctor showed up and an ambulance was there soon.

It wasn’t enough. Cila was dead.

Matt Carroll can be reached at Follow him at

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 16, 2010 8:09 am

    Massachusetts Whistleblower at Oversight Watch Massachusetts
    Massachusetts: Government/Business/ Labor Oversight This blog is dedicated to all Massachuestts citizens striving for Government, Businesss, and Labor Accountabiity and Oversight in the continual battle against.waste, fraud, and abuse.


    I cannot believe this news story. The Boston Globe management and several reporters have been enablers for no accountability and oversight on the Big Dig from start to finish.

    When Globe Reporters such as Peter Howe, Charles Sennott, and John Coughlin tried to report on inefficiency, waste, and mismanagement on the Big Dig, they were dismissed, demeaned, or intimidated. Conscientious Citizens that pleaded for and presented evidence received a similar fate. Even the highly respected Washington based group Project on Government Oversight led by Scott Amey suffered the same fate. The Special Interests were listened to and damage control was the philosophy by so many at the Boston Globe. As former Globe editorial writer Jon Keller said, both Boston newspaper editorial boards were “in the tank”.

    The international monument for the most expensive flawed no bid cost plus transportation project in the world that went from an original cost of $2.3 billion to $23+Billion riddled with inefficiency, waste and mismanagement with little or no oversight lives on.

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