Federal and state workplace safety inspectors have opened investigations into the partial collapse of Seattle’s Pier 58 as demolition crews worked Sunday to remove the city-owned structure also known as Waterfront Park.
The inspectors will investigate the city and two contractors that were involved with the project before a 15,000-square-foot chunk of the pier broke into Elliott Bay, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) said Monday. The contractors are Orion Marine Contractors and Evergreen Concrete Cutting.
Five workers were able to evacuate the danger zone, but two others were sent into the water. They were hauled out with minor injuries.
The collapse will be investigated by both L&I and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA partly oversees worker safety on vessels; a barge was being used for the demolition while other work was happening on the pier and on land, L&I spokesperson Tim Church said.
Built in 1974, Pier 58 sat between the Great Wheel and the Seattle Aquarium. The collapse occurred at about 4 p.m., as workers were cutting away heavy concrete planters that surrounded a bronze fountain on the north end of the structure, by the aquarium, according to the city’s Office of the Waterfront. The aquarium wasn’t damaged, spokesman Tim Kuniholm said.
Orion Marine declined to comment Monday, deferring to the city. Seattle Structural, which designed the pier’s demolition for the city, also declined to comment. Evergreen Concrete Cutting didn’t return a request for comment.
Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s Restaurant on Pier 54, said workers on the perimeter of the Pier 58 site had been directed to watch for sudden shifts in the structure and blow an air horn as a warning to evacuate. “Five of seven [workers on the pier] were able to get away because of the air horn,” said Donegan, who’s been closely involved with multiple waterfront projects.
The city knew Pier 58 was at risk due to regular reports on the structure, which is held up by timber, steel and steel-encased concrete piles. In 2016, 52% of the timber piles were seriously decayed, up from 3% in 2006, according to a report at the time by Seattle Structural that predicted one or more piles would fail by 2021.
Seattle had long planned to remove and replace Pier 58 with a new park as part of the massive waterfront overhaul that already has included the construction of a new Elliott Bay Seawall and last year’s deconstruction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
The new seawall was deliberately built unconnected to Pier 58, because the city expected to demolish the old Waterfront Park.
Until recently, the plan was to demolish the pier in 2022; metal plates span the joint between the pier and the seawall, accommodating some movement. But the city decided a change in schedule was needed last month, when workers checking another issue discovered the pier had moved several inches away from the seawall, leaving a visible gap.
The pier was closed to the public and the city selected Seattle Structural and Orion Marine for the project, using emergency contracts that were exempt from competitive solicitation requirements. Orion Marine is also working on other Seattle projects: a bridge replacement job in Eastlake and the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5 renovation.
The city initially said the demolition would cost $4.3 million and last until early 2021. The work was accelerated over the weekend, as engineers observed “increasing movement and deterioration,” according to the Office of the Waterfront.
More workers arrived at the site to saw through concrete, Donegan said. They were slicing through a thick slab reinforced with rebar, he said.
The Pier 58 segment that collapsed, including the 4-ton fountain and its concrete terrace with planters, was supported mostly by steel-encased concrete piles. But the heavy deck section and the piles below separated over time, creating an unsteady weight, according to the Office of the Waterfront. That weight was thought to be pulling the pier away from the seawall, Donegan said.
The steel-encased piles were responsible, more than the timber piles, for resisting Pier 58’s lateral movement, said the 2016 report, which warned about the metal corroding and recommended the city ban motor vehicles from the pier — signaling just how precarious the situation had already become.
“The north terrace in particular has serious reinforcing steel corrosion that may not be accelerating at this time but is ongoing,” the report said.
The fountain and other debris that plunged into the water will now need to be extracted, City Councilmember Debora Juarez said Monday. “We were lucky no one got hurt,” said Juarez, who oversees waterfront projects for the council.
The collapse occurred at high tide, Donegan noted. Had the tide been lower, the workers would have fallen farther before hitting the water. Pier 58 has been shifting less at high tide than at low tide, he added, suggesting water pressure helped stabilize the remaining structure Sunday.
The Office of the Waterfront and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office didn’t immediately share documents requested Monday by The Seattle Times: the city’s contracts with Orion Marine and Seattle Structural, and the Pier 58 demolition plan.
The city also didn’t answer questions about how exactly the collapse occurred, what environmental impacts the collapse may have and how, precisely, the city intends to move ahead with the project.
Seattle’s Pier 62/63 was rebuilt by the city without mishap in recent years after sustaining deterioration similar to that at Pier 58. Pacific Pile and Marine was the contractor for that project.
The contractors involved with the Pier 58 work each have had other projects inspected in recent years, according to safety records.
In January, Orion Marine incurred one serious violation and was fined $2,100 for not ensuring a worker operating an excavator was wearing a seatbelt during work at Terminal 5, an L&I inspection report shows. The company also was cited, but not fined, for using an attachment on the excavator without the manufacturer’s approval. The company is appealing both violations.
In 2018, Evergreen Concrete Cutting received one serious violation and a $900 fine during an asbestos and lead removal project in Olympia, for failing to guard working surfaces with unprotected edges and sides, according to OSHA inspection data. The project also incurred six minor violations related to lead exposure that didn’t result in fines.
Seattle’s air was hazardously smoky over the weekend, Councilmember Andrew Lewis noted Monday, questioning whether the city should have had contracted work occurring outdoors in such conditions.
“This is something we certainly need to address,” he said, and wondered whether the pier demolition crews should at least have been paid extra due to the smoke.
The Pier 58 fountain, designed by Seattle artist and architect James FitzGerald and cast a year after his death from bone cancer by his widow and artistic collaborator, Margaret Tomkins, features abstract shapes that resemble blocky trees.
Before the collapse, the Office of the Waterfront planned to incorporate the fountain into the new Pier 58 park.
“I sure hope it can be salvaged,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck, an architect whose father was close friends with FitzGerald. “It’s part of our legacy.”
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