Inquiries begin in collapse of canopy at San Ysidro crossing

Source:, September 16, 2011
By: Elizabeth Aguilera, Debbi Baker and Sandra Dibble

Federal officials hope to learn in about a week what caused a construction canopy to collapse Wednesday at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, sending 11 motorists to the hospital and wreaking havoc for thousands of people trying to cross from Mexico into San Diego.

By early Thursday morning, pedestrian and vehicle traffic was moving smoothly through the 14 lanes that had reopened. Travelers said wait times were shorter than usual, perhaps because Mexican media organizations had urged people to avoid the area unless they absolutely needed to cross the border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was unclear when the remaining 11 northbound lanes would be back in operation. Chris Maston, director of field operations in San Diego for the agency, said Thursday that any increase in lane capacity would likely be incremental over the next few days. (Southbound lanes were unaffected by the accident.)

At a midday news conference, Maston and other federal officials said engineers, government safety experts and others have begun their investigations into the collapse.

“We certainly don’t want to go beyond a week to get these things resolved — having a study of the incident from a structural standpoint,” said Langston Trigg with the General Services Administration, which is handling a $577 million overhaul of the San Ysidro crossing. He is supervising that project.

Investigators also are looking into the companies responsible for the scaffolding, which was erected to protect border-crossers from overhead construction to replace an administrative building.

Hensel Phelps, the overall contractor for the San Ysidro renovation, hired subcontractor AMG Demolition & Environmental Service. In turn, AMG hired Miller Environmental, and then Miller brought on Vertical Access. It was Vertical Access that put up the canopy.

“We don’t tell the contractor who they should hire,” Trigg said, and it is up to the contractor to verify the credentials of any subcontractor. “We hold the contractor responsible. That is not something I get directly involved in.”

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal/OSHA, does not have record of any previous investigation involving Vertical Access.

And while the agency has investigated Hensel Phelps in the past for accidents and through worksite inspections, it has never cited the company for violations.

Hensel Phelps was overseeing construction of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel when a boiler-room explosion occurred in May 2008, injuring 14 people.

An investigation by Cal/OSHA blamed the blast on boiler piping and other equipment that was not properly installed by a subcontractor. Hensel Phelps was cleared in that investigation.

Over the years, Vertical Access has faced several civil lawsuits in Southern California, while Hensel Phelps has been involved in more than 100 federal suits nationwide. It is unclear whether the cases for either company dealt with safety issues.

For the San Ysidro canopy investigations, officials will scrutinize events leading up to the accident, examine training records, look at what preventive measures the companies took and assess the worksite procedures.

“Our concern and our purpose is workplace safety,” said Dean Fryer, spokesman for Cal/OSHA.

Officials have left much of the accident site intact, including vehicles that were crushed by the falling wood and cement, for evaluation by investigators.

A day earlier, border and customs agents diverted vehicles and pedestrians away from the area and toward the Otay Mesa crossing. Some people reported waits of four to six hours to get into the U.S. via that jammed port of entry.

By 6 a.m. Thursday, both northbound and southbound traffic flowed steadily through San Ysidro, and waits at Otay Mesa were back down.

At the San Ysidro crossing, travelers on foot with suitcases, students with backpacks and mothers pushing baby strollers could be seen stepping out of the inspection facilities. Many said they were happily surprised that the wait took only 20 minutes or so.

Donovan Chavarria, an 18-year-old student at Southwestern College, crossed by foot into San Ysidro on his way to an 8 a.m. computer statistics class.

He said he arrived more than an hour early thinking that the wait would be longer than usual, but instead it was shorter.

That also was the case for Adrian Lopez of Monterrey, Mexico, who drove across the border with his wife and son on their way to Disneyland. Lopez said they arrived early anticipating a lengthy wait, but it took just 45 minutes.

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