With lawsuits likely, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office has taken over the investigation into why 26 power poles collapsed near the Museum of Flight two weeks ago, crushing a car and sending the two people inside to the hospital.
The City Attorney’s Office has hired an outside investigator to help with the process, but declined to say who it is or what he or she will be looking at.
“As is the case when we retain consulting experts in anticipation of litigation, the identity of any investigating party is work-product privileged and I won’t be able to provide you any names in the near term,” said Dan Nolte, a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes.
The power poles fell late the afternoon of April 5, tumbling down like a string of 90-foot-tall timber dominoes, strung together with live electrical wires. One pole crashed through the windshield of Linda and Tom Cook, who were driving down East Marginal Way in Tukwila and, miraculously, escaped without major injuries.
It remains unclear what caused the poles to fall.
Shortly after the incident, Seattle City Light, which jointly owns the 26 poles along with private communications companies, said it would contract with a third-party to help with investigating what caused the collapse.
“The process will include reviewing previous inspection records, inspecting the damaged poles and equipment, which have been collected and transported to a City Light facility, as well as obtaining and reviewing any available video from the vicinity,” City Light said in a statement at the time.
But much of that process has been transferred to the City Attorney’s Office. And where City Light said it was in conversations with a national engineering firm and planned to identify the consultant after signing a contract, the City Attorney’s Office is keeping a tighter lid on the investigation.
“We have engaged the investigating party on an hourly basis, so there’s no contract to share,” Nolte said.
City Light has also refused to allow photography of the power poles since their transfer to a “secure yard,” but posted their own photo instead.
The two oldest of the toppled poles were installed in 1954 and the five newest were installed in 2011. All 26 were last inspected in 2016, City Light said, when they were given a rating ranging from 1 to 5. None of the poles received the lowest P1 rating, which would have flagged them for immediate replacement, City Light said.
The 26 poles ranged from P2 to P5. Eight were rated P2, meaning they were flagged for replacement “within a practical time frame,” City Light said. Those eight poles had been included in the utility’s capital-improvement plan.
The utility owns (either entirely or jointly) 93,000 utility poles in the region. The average age of each pole is about 38 years, City Light said. Any pole that’s been up for more than five years is supposed to be inspected every 10 years.
The inspection process, carried out by a private contractor, includes visual and sound inspections — hitting the poles with a hammer and listening for hollow decay — and a bore inspection. Each new pole costs about $10,000.
“Typically, a pole should be able to last 60 years easily, if it’s well maintained and treated properly,” a pole inspector said in a 2017 city-produced video. Inspectors also treat poles with a boron rod, which is drilled into the wood and then diffuses its payload throughout the pole to repel insects and fungus.