Range of failures led to Aiea overpass crash
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By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
Last year's crash of a military truck and excavator into an 'Aiea overpass, which led to one of the worst traffic tie-ups in state history, was the result of widespread misunderstanding by soldiers as to what constituted a "convoy," a breakdown in responsibility, a failure to use an escort vehicle and a rush to get on the road.
It all could have been avoided had someone simply used a measuring tape to figure out the height of the load.
Those are among the findings of an Army investigation obtained by The Advertiser into the 1:30 p.m. accident on Sept. 5, 2006, on the 'Ewa-bound H-1 Freeway, which paralyzed O'ahu roadways and affected tens of thousands on a day that was dubbed "Black Tuesday."
"Not one piece of documentation required for this operation was completed to standard," reported Lt. Col. Tracy E. McLean, the investigating officer.
An excavator with a 4-foot hydraulic hammer attachment was atop the Army semi-trailer when the rig slammed into the concrete overpass at between 45 and 55 mph.
The 18 1/2-foot-tall heavy machinery was more than 2 feet taller than the bottom of the footbridge, which has a maximum allowable height of 14 feet for vehicles.
The crash created an explosion of dust and rubble.
"For a few seconds, I just couldn't see. You couldn't see nothing," said Leslie Kumia, who was driving a green 1994 Ford next to the truck.
Scott Ishikawa, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said some witnesses reported seeing the bridge buckle. Baseball-sized pieces of concrete hailed down.
"We're fortunate we didn't have a kid walking on that overpass at the time, because it's meant for the schools," Ishikawa said.
All six westbound lanes of the H-1 were shut down.
It was described as the perfect storm — an accident at the worst place at the worst time. Traffic backed up like water rushing into a clogged sink.
But "Black Tuesday" has had ramifications far beyond the stories of bumper-to-bumper gridlock, half-day commutes and tourists walking to the airport, bags in hand.
An approximately $600,000 bill is still being finalized by the state Department of Transportation for delivery to the Army for the cost of tearing down the old overpass and putting up a new one.
The Army paid about $200,000 for damage and loss of use of the excavator, which was rented from Western Machinery in Kapolei, a company representative said. Costs for the Honolulu Police Department and TheBus being billed to the Army total another $26,700.
Meanwhile, an afternoon rush Zipper Lane on the H-1 is being considered that could double as an emergency contra-flow bypass.
The Honolulu Police Department's District 3, which extends from Red Hill to Kunia, developed an emergency response plan with predetermined turn-offs and staffing requirements should something similar happen again.
Civil Defense stands ready to pass the word more quickly to TV and radio stations and newspapers.
The ensuing Army investigation found plenty of blame to go around, from the highest levels of the 29th Engineer Battalion and its 82nd Engineer Company down to the driver of the M1916A3 truck, 36-year-old Sgt. R.J. Eugin Jr.
"No one from the battalion commander on down could clearly articulate when a convoy clearance was required," investigator McLean wrote. "Most people thought that if you send the vehicles out in groups of five or less, no convoy clearance was required, which is a misinterpretation of the regulation."
The 25th Infantry Division convoy commander's guide states that convoy clearances are required even if a single vehicle is involved if the vehicle requires a special hauling permit.
Had an escort vehicle been used, "the escort vehicle would likely have noticed the load was too tall before the collision with the bridge occurred," McLean said.
Maj. Curtis Edson, the 29th Engineer Battalion's operations officer, said in the report that the rig hit the lighting supports of at least three overhead signs before striking the overpass.
STRUGGLE FOR REPORT
The Advertiser obtained the more than 500-page Army Article 15-6 investigation through a Freedom of Information Act request, which the U.S. Army Garrison, Hawai'i, first rejected in February, saying the information was "exempt from disclosure."
An appeal to the Pentagon reversed the garrison's earlier refusal, but the Army still redacted multiple pages, saying some of the information was classified and its release would damage national security.
The Army said the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, the 29th Engineer Battalion's higher headquarters at Fort Shafter, took nonjudicial, or administrative, action against leaders and soldiers involved.
Penalties included fines, reduction in grade and letters of reprimand.
But the Army said, "We will not discuss the specific actions nor release the names of the individuals disciplined due to privacy act concerns."
"The Army immediately accepted responsibility for this accident and deeply regrets the impacts that the accident had on individuals and families throughout the island," the service said in e-mailed responses to Advertiser questions. "The findings and recommendations from the investigation were used to modify our internal procedures to prevent a similar accident. We pride ourselves as being good neighbors and want to do our part to ensure something like this doesn't happen again."
The accident occurred after U.S. Army, Pacific, at Fort Shafter tasked the 82nd Engineer Company to demolish a bachelors' quarters on Kwajalein Atoll.
Two excavators were leased for the project, including the 330 LX HYEX involved in the accident.
On June 6, unit equipment deployed from Schofield Barracks. Following the demolition work, the excavators were loaded on a barge on Aug. 9 and 10 for the voyage back to Pearl Harbor and arrived the morning of Sept. 5.
'NO ONE ... UNDERSTOOD'
That morning, there were 18 vehicles that had to travel from Pearl Harbor to Schofield, including oversized vehicles requiring special hauling permits and Army convoy clearance permission, "but no one at the company or battalion level understood this requirement," McLean, the Army's investigating officer, said in her report.
"There was clearly a lack of supervision and oversight at all levels within the company to ensure required paperwork for this operation was completed to standard," she said. "During this operation, there was also a lack of discipline at the lowest levels to fill out even the most basic and routine paperwork."
Eugin, the driver of the truck that hit the overpass, was tapped for the job when he arrived at the port that morning because there was a shortage of drivers.
In testimony, he said he had moved oversized pieces of equipment on Hawai'i highways four to five times in late 2005, and to the best of his knowledge, without DOT permits.
There was a "safety briefing" that morning covering speeds on the barge and docks and highway height restrictions, but Eugin said no one measured the load and he was not aware of the requirement to have escort vehicles.
Pfc. Bobi Jo Tieden was the "truck commander" of the vehicle, but the investigation said she had not been in the Army long and she did not have enough experience to perform her duties.
Tieden, 20, said when the rig hit the overpass, "the truck and trailer did a jack-knife effect, we were jerked and then came to a stop on the interstate."
Eugin was negligent for departing without measuring the load and without escort vehicles, McLean said.
The convoy commander, meanwhile, failed to direct subordinates to remove a 4-foot hydraulic hammer from the excavator that made the load 18 1/2 feet tall, the report said. Had it been removed, the height would have been under 14 1/2 feet, and the equipment would have cleared the overpass.
The company commander thought it was the company executive officer's responsibility to submit the permit to haul oversized equipment, McLean stated.
The responsibility actually falls to the company unit movement/safety officer, but she stated she never received training or guidance on her duties, and was not at the port, according to the investigation.
Additionally, there were "some difficulties" off-loading the barge that morning, and haste to get on the highway before a convoy cut-off time of 4 to 6 p.m., the report found.
As a result of McLean's recommendations, the Army said the unit involved has implemented new procedures, checks and instructions to improve the safety of the military vehicles operating in Hawai'i.
Those procedures have been shared with other units so they can implement their own safety procedures.
Among the changes, no over-sized vehicles will be transported without the specific approval of the battalion-level commander and only after proper convoy clearance and other permits are obtained and a comprehensive risk assessment is done.
Shortly after the accident, the state DOT said the Army had rarely applied for oversize load permits to transport equipment like the excavator. Instead, it relied on a contractor for much of the hauling.
The DOT's Ishikawa said the permits office was getting one or two oversize and overweight load applications a month from the military and military contractors before the accident.
But since then, "Just this year alone, we have about 200 permit applications," he said. "I think there's better communication now between the DOT and the military."
Part of the permit's purpose is to lay out the best route to take.
Honolulu Police Maj. Debora Tandal, commander of HPD's District 3, developed a plan to staff key intersections and divert traffic if something similar happens again.
"It's more uniform now," Tandal said. "So it wouldn't be a matter of deciding we'd have (traffic control) at certain intersections. The intersections are identified."
Ishikawa said thought is being given to having an afternoon rush Zipper Lane, and creating more openings in the H-1 median to divert traffic to the other side in the event of a highway calamity.
"It would probably be one or two lanes, but still, it's better than no lanes," he said.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.