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Collapse of Overpass in California Becomes Lesson in Construction

An overpass near the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge collapsed last month after a gasoline truck crashed into a guardrail and burst into flames. For an engineering professor, the incident has turned into a lesson for building safer structures.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, lessons learned from the California freeway collapse in Oakland. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our Science Unit report.

  • SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent:

    At 3:40 a.m., on the last Sunday in April, a gasoline truck crashed into the guard rail on a major California freeway near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and burst into flames. The fire was so intense, it caused an overpass to collapse.

    The damage closed two heavily traveled freeways and caused commuters to alter their routes. The collapse of the freeways was more than just a local traffic nightmare; it was an object lesson in freeway construction and destruction. And it had many similarities to the obliteration of the World Trade Center.

    Abolhassan Astaneh should know. He's a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and was one of the leading structural engineers who studied the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

    ABOLHASSAN ASTANEH, University of California, Berkeley: In both of them, basically, the fire was the reason why steel got soft and weak and collapsed. In both of them, I feel that we, as engineers, if we had looked at them and learned the lessons, we could really apply these lessons to build safe structures.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Astaneh quickly fired off an application to make a forensic investigation of the crash, to figure out why the structures behaved the way they did, and to prevent it from happening again. Within three hours, he got word he was awarded a $25,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which also partly funds the NewsHour's Science Unit.

    But getting the grant money was only part of the challenge. Astaneh, a native of Iran, had to use his ingenuity to gain access to the collapse site, because the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, delayed sending him the necessary paperwork.

  • ABOLHASSAN ASTANEH:

    I don't know exactly why Caltrans did not act as fast as this thing requires. You know, when you get a grant in three hours, you expect to start your project the next hour, not after three days.

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