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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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Workers hurt in Pier 58 collapse sue Seattle, say city job was unsafe

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David Grosl was sitting on his couch in Puyallup about three years ago, getting ready to watch the Seahawks game with his kids, when he got an emergency call asking him to help demolish Pier 58 in Seattle.

Later that day, as Grosl was operating a massive saw, the pier suddenly collapsed — and much of the life he’d built for himself collapsed, too.

Tossed into Elliott Bay with huge slabs of concrete and heavy machinery, Grosl says he was struck in the head, neck and back by debris. He swallowed water and could have drowned. Instead, he was pulled out with a sheared scalp, fractured vertebrae, nerve damage and a sense of panic he can’t seem to shake, he and his attorney said in an interview last month.

The 33-year-old father of five, whose youngest child was born 14 days after the September 2020 collapse on the downtown Seattle waterfront, is suing the city and a number of contractors, accusing them of sending him into a hazardous situation. Two other workers are Grosl’s co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Their attorney, William H.P. Fuld, says the city neglected the deteriorating pier for years and then rushed to demolish it unsafely in 2020 as it started to fail.

The dispute is fleshed out by public records, such those obtained separately by The Seattle Times in the wake of the incident. In an email a month before the collapse, an engineer from a company considering the demolition job asked the city about installing temporary supports and worried about the pier “toppling like a house of cards” during demolition.

The city says it isn’t paying to defend itself in the lawsuit.

“The City closed the pier when it was no longer safe for the public and subsequently hired an experienced contractor who created a plan for the demolition of the pier,” Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said in a statement Friday. “The contractor’s insurer has accepted the City’s claim as an additional insured on the contractor’s insurance policy and is defending the City at the insurer’s sole expense.”

Grosl hasn’t been able to return to work, forcing his family to rely on his longshore worker compensation benefits, he said last month. His anxiety spikes when he ventures near water, he can’t feel the tips of his fingers and his back hurts when he plays with his toddler, he said.

“He always wants me to hold him, but I can only hold him for a short period of time,” Grosl said. “I get pissed off and mad that I’m kind of worthless.”

Decades of decay

The collapse of Pier 58, also known as Waterfront Park, was a long time coming. Built in 1974, the structure with picnic tables and telescopes included a timber deck with timber piles and a concrete terrace with steel-wrapped concrete piles. In 2006, inspectors told the city the steel-concrete piles were corroding and suggested the terrace section be repaired or demolished, with load and access restrictions as an alternative. The city chose restrictions.

In 2011, inspectors again raised concerns about the terrace section, telling the city “serious corrosion” was ongoing and recommending that the city ban large crowds from the pier.

In 2016, inspectors said 52% of the pier’s timber piles were weakened to 25% capacity, up from 3% of them in 2006. They also warned about the steel-concrete piles but said the pier could remain open, with restrictions. By that time, the city had incorporated Pier 58’s eventual demolition and replacement into a larger vision to redevelop the entire downtown waterfront.

Pier 58’s replacement was at one point penciled in for 2017, but the overall waterfront revamp was delayed, partly due to problems with the machine digging a Highway 99 tunnel. The pier’s replacement was ultimately scheduled for 2022, with concerts held on the structure as late as 2019.

Though a city rule mandated annual row-through inspections under all timber piers, and though inspectors recommended annual load tests at Pier 58, those things didn’t happen leading up to 2020.

In August 2020, the pier’s waterline busted, alerting the city that some piles below the terrace had broken. The terrace had become unstable and was leaning toward Elliott Bay, pulling the pier away from the seawall.

Emergency action

At that juncture, Seattle Structural, the engineering company that had inspected Pier 58 in 2011 and 2016, recommended that it be demolished within 90 days, warning that a collapse could damage neighboring piers.

That’s when the city leapt into action, closing the pier, then hiring Seattle Structural to design its demolition and Orion Marine to carry it out. Rather than seek bids publicly, the city used an emergency contracting policy to directly contact Orion and a second company, Manson Construction.

It was Manson’s chief engineer, Jeff Arviso, who worried about the pier collapsing during demolition. He inquired about temporary supports.

“Our team has been brainstorming and one of the big puzzle pieces that remains unclear is the stability engineering,” Arviso wrote in an email to city representatives on Aug. 17, 2020. “We remain very concerned about the shifting and peeling things back only to see that things start toppling like a house of cards. Manson does not want to assume that liability.”

In reply, a city representative said Seattle’s engineer had recommended “movement monitoring” to warn workers about an imminent collapse, rather than temporary supports.

Manson ultimately declined to submit a price for the job.

“They wanted us out there right away and … we did not feel that we had the right people and the right equipment to do the work when they wanted,” Arviso said in an interview later in 2020, after the collapse.

Though the demolition contract and permits included the option of installing up to 10 temporary piles, Orion chose not to do that. Installing temporary piles would have delayed an urgent job, the city said after the collapse.

The project moved quickly. Seattle Structural submitted draft demolition drawings on Sept. 3 and Sept. 11, 2020. Orion submitted a demolition plan and was authorized to start work on Sept. 4. Demolition began Sept. 12 and the collapse was Sept. 13. The city didn’t sign Orion’s contract until Sept. 15.

An attorney representing Orion didn’t return requests for comment about the lawsuit. Seattle Structural didn’t comment.

The collapse

The demolition plan was divided into stages, starting with heavy segments of the concrete terrace. Orion hired Evergreen Concrete Cutting as a subcontractor for that. Grosl worked for Evergreen, making $44 an hour. He said he agreed to work at Pier 58 that Sunday to earn overtime pay.

Once at the pier, Grosl and some co-workers received a five-minute safety briefing, he said. They were told a horn would sound before a collapse and to run to a safety zone if that happened. “The key things were, ‘Here’s your life jacket. We’re going to blow a horn. If you hear the horn, run like hell,’ “ Grosl said.

Grosl said an Orion supervisor told him where and how to cut, hustling onto the pier to give him instructions and then hustling back. He was sawing next to a concrete planter when the terrace dropped out from under him.

An alarm did sound, and some workers scrambled to safety. But Grosl and co-worker Patrick Hermsen couldn’t escape. Grosl said he doesn’t remember hearing the alarm until he was plummeting into a whirlpool with tens of thousands of pounds of debris crashing down around him.

“I went down to the bottom,” he said. “It was pitch black and I was just telling my wife and kids, ‘I love you guys.’ I thought I was done.”

A co-worker pulled Hermsen out using a hose. Grosl said he got hauled into a boat, feet first.

The aftermath

Work began last year on a new Pier 58 park with scenic views, an elevated lawn and a marine-themed playground. Pacific Pile is handling the $34.5 million construction project, which is scheduled to be complete in 2025.

Filed in June, Grosl’s lawsuit against the city, Orion, Seattle Structural and other contractors seeks damages for medical bills, lost wages, lost benefits and lost earning capacity, plus pain, suffering, mental anguish and permanent impairment. The other plaintiffs are Hermsen, who says he was struck in the back when he fell, and Keith Blackwell, who narrowly escaped.

Immediately after the incident, city officials called the collapse a “traumatic experience” for the workers and said they were lucky to avoid worse injuries. They defended the contractors, attributing the collapse to the pier’s deterioration rather than the demolition plan. They said the movement monitoring system had worked, triggering an alarm as intended.

Also in 2020, city spokespeople defended Pier 58’s maintenance. Though there weren’t annual inspections, staff spent time below the pier for other work and communicated any concerns, the spokespeople said. What inspectors saw in 2016 wouldn’t have predicted the 2020 collapse, they said.

The city wasn’t aware of any demolition method “that would have completely eliminated having workers on the pier,” they added, saying the plan was designed to minimize the number of workers on the structure. In 2021, a review of the incident by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries found no violations.

But Fuld, the attorney for the concrete cutters, said Grosl, Hermsen and Blackwell were rushed onto the pier “almost like sacrificial lambs.” The city could have replaced the pier years earlier but waited, he said.

“These guys paid the price,” Fuld said.

Grosl had neck surgery after the incident. He can’t work on classic cars like he used to and his 8-year-old son “knows where to push on my back” to ease his pain. He may never work as a concrete cutter again; you can’t operate a chipping gun for hours at a time with a bad neck and numb fingers.

There are psychological scars. Grosl gets scared walking under scaffolds, crossing bridges, driving down the highway. “I don’t like horns,” he said.

Before the collapse, Grosl was making plenty of money, he said. Today, he can’t afford to take his kids out, so they mostly stay home, and he sold his 1970 split-bumper Camaro to help make ends meet, he said. He forgets things, gets extra irritable at home and avoids socializing.

“I just don’t talk to anyone,” he said. “Because I’m not the same person.”

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