Feeling the Heat: Crews Race to Repair Span in 18 Days


Early in the morning of July 1, a fire caused by a tanker truck carrying ethanol exploded under a bridge on Interstate 70 on the outerbelt going around Columbus, Ohio. This required emergency work to be done to repair the bridge and adjacent ramp — a $1.186 million Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) contract that went to Shelly & Sands Inc. (S&S) a day after the incident.

The bridge repair work was done in 18 days and reopened to traffic on July 21.

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Firemen from the Columbus Fire Department put out the blaze, which started around 6 a.m., in two hours. ODOT personnel were only able to access the site at 1:30 p.m., nearly eight hours after the incident, when the site was deemed to be safe. The fire reached a temperature of 1,800 degrees at its peak.

The concrete slab bridge that carries traffic into Columbus from the west is at the juncture of the eastbound I-70 and I-270.

“We had a tanker that rolled over and caught fire under that bridge,” said Matt Bruning, press secretary, ODOT. “and caused such severe damage to one of the spans of the bridge that we actually had to replace it. That was done through emergency federal funding — they front us the money that is already allocated to Ohio so that we could do the repair and we pay that back when we either reach an agreement with the insurance company or the trucking company to repay that money back.”

Following shutting down the affected section of highway and dealing with the fire, ODOT staff quickly put together the process to prepare a contract for bids.


The tender was made on the day of the fire and of the four companies that submitted, S&S was chosen on July 2, with the 30-day completion period beginning on July 3.

“They did an excellent job in getting that bridge re-opened in 21 days,” said Bruning. “It also included the ramp below the bridge because when the tanker caught fire, it damaged the concrete pavement.”

S&S also was awarded a cost plus contract for the building of a crossover on I-70.

“We took the eastbound I-70, crossed it over to the westbound side and had bi-directional traffic going to get around the incident,” said Bruning. “Due to the incident, there was no time to bid so we just said ‘do it and bill us.’”

The crossover work, when completed, cost ODOT $653,000.

Tim Keller, ODOT’s bridge engineer, brought on for the emergency work, had not seen such damage before.

“It took us about two minutes to decide that the concrete span had to be replaced,” he said, “but it took a little more time to determine what to do with the columns and other parts. We had about an hour before we asked the general contractors to show up on site to discuss the scope of service.”

Cooperation was essential to repairing the damage quickly and properly, and the first meeting with S&S occurred 15 minutes after the contract was awarded

“We wanted the contractor to be successful,” said Keller, “and we put a very aggressive schedule together and wanted it to be completed as soon as possible. I had given their project manager my cell phone number and he called me every day for the first week. We agreed on a general repair strategy by 6 p.m. Shelly & Sands had a couple of really good ideas that we accepted.”

The original scope for the work called for the removal of two columns, which would have required temporary support for the bridge as one of its spans was being retained, but the contractor said ‘rather than remove the columns, why not encapsulate them?’

“It was a really good idea and it saved time and eliminated the need to support the span,” said Keller. “Some of the reinforcing steel details needed to be clarified. The contractor wanted to do a couple of things that were slightly different from the original bridge design plans to meet today’s standards. We told them to use the original plans and some of the reinforcing steel they had at their shop was slightly different, which matched today’s standards. We decided on this issue quickly and kept working. Such decisions were made on a regular basis throughout the work.”

ODOT had its laboratory test the damaged materials and concrete, from the deck and cores from the columns and reinforced steel — the day after the fire, and it had the results the next day.

“1,800 degrees Fahrenheit is pretty intense and to a certain extent,” said Keller, “you can’t plan for such heat. A fire on a bridge is so very rare and it’s not one the design criteria for our bridges. A fire of the duration and heat that occurred, you can’t design against it, but the bridge held out for quite a while and after the fire was put out, it was still standing.”

ODOT continually tests and updates its concrete formulas and it does not place a fire retardant in the mixes.

“There isn’t a need as concrete does really well in a fire to dissipate heat and this bridge did not fall down,” said Keller, who notes that steel receives protection in vertical construction. “It’s not a requirement for our structures, nor should it, because the occurrence of such an event is rare. The steel on the damaged bridge did not melt — it was soft and deflected under the heat — that was interesting.”

Shelly & Sands assigned Robert Hunt Jr., senior bridge engineer, to manage the project. Tom O’Brien, another S&S bridge engineer, was on site first for the firm on July 1 and as of July 2, both engineers were involved with the project.

“It was fortunate that it wasn’t a structural steel bridge, because if it had been, it would have been months to secure the beams and other materials to rebuild the bridge,” he said, “but the fact it was a slab bridge ensured that the building materials were relatively available. The fire damaged the underside of the deck and the concrete had popped away from the reinforcing steel — the steel was dangling from the underside of the deck. Certain columns took the brunt of the blaze and were substantially damaged. It was obvious that you could not put traffic on the bridge.”

The S&S bid was submitted at 2 p.m. and at 2:15 p.m. Hunt and his staff had their first meeting with the ODOT, and at 3:30 p.m. a meeting was held with the ODOT bridge engineer on site.

“By 6 p.m. a consensus was reached as far as the best way to accomplish their goals as quickly as possible,” said Hunt. “The owner changed the scope based on our suggestions and developed a plan that could best suit the availability of materials and accelerate the project. This was over the July 4 weekend and there were no materials available.

“So we pulled out of inventory reinforcing steel that was available,” he said. “This material was extra left over from prior ODOT projects.”

The crossover work, completed in two and a half days via 24/7 work, was given to S&S as the fire was burning.

“We happened to have a night-time paving operation a mile down the I-70,” said Hunt, “and ODOT decided that they had to bypass traffic around the bridge, so on an emergency/cost-plus basis, they hired us, because we were in the area, to design the crossovers, put in pavements, and divert traffic away from the bridge and onto the other side of the road.”

Although S&S had 30 days to do the bridge work, they opted for 24/7 shifts to get the bridge job done more rapidly.

“We expended over 200 man-hours per-day,” he said, noting that the crews ranged between five and 15 men depending on type of work being done. I was asked at one point during an interview ‘why don’t we do this all the time?’ It’s important to understand this project was an exception to the rule and that the industry could not sustain a pace like this on all projects.

“We had a core group of probably 10 people and we brought in others when we needed them,” he added. “Sometimes people were off for a day. When we needed a certain skill, we brought certain people on. Some of our crew members had over 100-hour weeks for two weeks.”

“I give Bob Hunt and Shelly & Sands a lot of credit for the scheduling and getting the equipment and people for the work,” said Keller. “They did a great job and the key was to communicate the goals, targets, and schedules.”

Two subcontractors were brought in for the bridge work — one to erect the reinforcing steel in the deck and another, Vasta Construction, to install the carbon fiber wrap on the pier columns and caps.

“They worked around our work and were on site almost every weekday,” said Hunt, “putting in long hours.”

For the crossover work, various small subcontractors were brought in for striping, milling, etc.

The bridge work and damaged pavement under the bridge required the use of 530 cu. yds. (405.3 cu m) of concrete, and 50 tons (45.3 t) of reinforcing steel. The crossover work, led by Jeff Harper, project manager, placed 1,525 tons (1,383 t) of stone and 2,575 tons (2,336 t) of asphalt in 2 and a half days with a crew varying between 15 and 20.

The crews demonstrated their abilities to deal with emergency situations and put their skills to the test.

“They knew that their efforts were appreciated by the company,” said Hunt, “and they recognized the importance of this work to the city of Columbus, Shelly & Sands and ODOT — they took pride in that and the successful outcome.”

Hunt stressed the roles of Josh Edwards, the onsite superintendent; Tom O’Brien, the onsite project engineer; and Ryan Grezlik, the general bridge superintendent for the bridge project.

“They were the three that were instrumental, more than anyone,” he said, “for the success.”

“It didn’t take long to get our personnel into the flow of the project,” said Edwards, who has been with S&S for seven years, “but the hours were long and our crews were tired by the end of the project. Coordination of so many workers in a confined work area was a big challenge.”

O’Brien, who joined the company in 2008, has worked on many bridge projects.

“Once you get past the shock of seeing such damage, your mind begins to turn out ideas of the best way to fix it,” he said. “Once we were awarded the contract, we immediately began generating sketches and drawings to fabricate reinforcing steel, form the columns and caps and design the falsework to support the new deck.”

Grezlik, a 13-year veteran of S&S, looked forward to the challenge.

“The initial mobilization of needed equipment over the July 4 holiday was the biggest challenge we faced in getting a good start out of the gate,” he said.

Mechanics were on call to repair any equipment for both projects. For the bridge work, S&S assigned a Hitachi Z-450 excavator with a Genesis GRD-400 cruncher; Cat 220 and 320 excavators, a Cat 930 wheel loader, several smaller rubber tired backhoes and various air compressors, manlifts, forklifts and light plants.

“There was a lot of jackhammer work,” said Hunt.

The crossover work had operators using a wide variety of excavators, wheel loaders, compactors, dozers, rollers, dump trucks and asphalt paving equipment.

On Oct. 6 Keller and Hunt presented a lecture on the bridge work at an Association for Bridge Construction and Design (Central Ohio chapter) and American Society of Civil Engineers (Central Ohio Section) luncheon.

“The presentation generated a lot of interest and questions from the attending engineers and contractors,” said Hunt. “This was an unusual project with unique challenges, affecting over 100,000 vehicles a day traveling through this major central Ohio corridor.”

Keller noted that the repair work was standard, but that the lessons learned for ODOT was the importance of communications.

“We had a couple of missteps at the beginning,” he said, “but those were resolved and the process was successfully done between our public information officers (PIO). A lot of people wanted information all at once and our District Deputy Director Ferzan Ahmed and our PIOs did a great job. It was always ‘communicate, communicate and communicate’ and in an emergency, it’s very true. Everybody understood where we were going and the targets that we had.

“When our chief engineer said that on Friday at noon the crossover would be in place — he communicated that very effectively,” he said, “we knew the target and everybody then had to figure out what we needed to do to meet it.”

So far ODOT has not received any requests from other DOTs and concrete manufacturers about the results of the tests of the damaged materials, but Keller said that this could be due to news of the incident remaining local.

“We collected pieces of debris to have at our lab in case anyone wants to examine them,” he said. “I have given a number of presentations locally to various professional organizations on the fire and repair work. We have the data and we’ll share it with anybody who requests it.”

Keller also pointed out that “ODOT gets blamed for things we shouldn’t get blamed for and sometimes we get blamed for things we deserve to get blamed for,” he said, “but in this case, maybe we don’t get the credit for things we did right and we got it right in so many areas and made a lot of good decisions. As an organization we’re very proud of what we achieved.”
Region: Midwest Edition | StoryID: 26770 | Published On: 12/8/2015