Investigation, cleanup continues on collapsed Willits freeway

WILLITS, Calif. (KGO) -- Investigators are still sifting through the rubble of a freeway collapse in Mendocino County to determine the cause.

The freeway is being built to bypass the City of Willits on Highway 101. The controversial project has been plagued with cost overruns and now some locals are questioning whether the entire project will be safe.

Crews are working quickly to remove what's left of a 150 foot section of freeway that came crashing down last week.

"It sounded... it was just an explosion and when I looked up, I could just see it collapsing and I saw that end come down," said Steve Short, who watched the whole thing from his front yard. "It just happened so fast, and it was so loud, and they are so lucky that somebody wasn't killed."

More than a dozen workers were on or near the structure when it collapsed. Two were trapped in the debris and three went to the hospital.

"I didn't think anyone would walk away from that. There is so much iron and cement and wood and big beams and I mean fresh cement it could just bury somebody, but they rode it down," said Short.

Cal/OSHA is now investigating Flatiron Construction, the Caltrans subcontractor doing the work. Federal safety records show Flatiron has had eight accidents since 2010.

Flatiron is the same company working on the Doyle Drive replacement project leading up to the Golden Gate Bridge.

This accident is the latest in a string of problems on the Willits project. It is already two years behind, with massive cost overruns, environmental issues and the discovery of Native American archaeological sites. Residents are also concerned about recent landslides near the highway.

The structure that collapsed was part of a raised viaduct being built over sensitive habitat for endangered steelhead trout and salmon. Debris fell directly into a protected creek. State wildlife officials worked fast with the contractor to divert water to prevent further damage, but the incident still has locals worried.

City Council Madge Strong is worried about the structural integrity of the entire project. She said, "I don't know exactly what's going wrong, but there's been an awful lot going wrong... It doesn't reassure me very much. The engineering for the whole viaduct could be in question."

She believes the collapse is further evidence the bypass should be scaled down. Strong added, "The price tag just keeps going up and up and up."

Caltrans told ABC7 News Flatiron's insurance will likely cover most of the cost of the collapse. The price tag for the project so far is $275 million for six miles of freeway.

Work on other parts of the project is continuing. It may be as long as six months before Cal/OSHA releases the results of its investigation.

Written and produced Ken Miguel and Jennifer Olney.
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