Northwest News

Bonney Lake flagger: Waiting for the call that never came

The morning of April 13, Carla Vandiver was working below a state Route 410 overpass in Bonney Lake, waiting for the call to stop traffic along Angeline Road East.

Above her, workers were doing demolition work, cutting concrete.

Out of sight but driving toward Vandiver was the Ellis family — 25-year-old Josh, 29-year-old Vanessa and their 8-month-old son, Hudson. They were in the family pickup, on the way to Home Depot.

Vandiver, 53, was the traffic control supervisor employed by the project’s contractor, WHH Nisqually. She was waiting for a radio call from the project’s foreman to stop traffic during the removal of a concrete barrier on the overpass.

Vandiver and her fellow flagger, on standby, casually watched from the ground.

Suddenly, a 105-foot-long slab of concrete fell from above. It flattened the Ellis’ pickup, killing the young family.

“All I could say was, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’” Vandiver told The News Tribune in a recent interview. “You knew there was no way anyone survived.”

The contractor says it had a traffic control plan, and that it was followed that day.

But Vandiver keeps wondering: If she had been on that overpass, could she have done more?

Because she held the title of supervisor, she says she originally expected to work on top of the overpass coordinating two flaggers below. Instead, when the project began, she was assigned to work as a second flagger on the ground.

The memories of the concrete falling on the young family that Monday morning still replay in her head.

The truck’s horn blared.

Gravel debris grazed her as she stood between 50 and 100 feet away.

A nearby resident called 911. So did workers on the scene, including Vandiver.

After the initial moment of shock, she switched into work mode. She started diverting traffic and ordered the other flagger to do the same.

In the days that followed, as work on the overpass was suspended and police investigated, Vandiver couldn’t stop thinking about what she had seen.

“It was really upsetting,” she said. “I’m still not over it.”

SUPERVISOR TURNED FLAGGER

Vandiver, a member of the Northwest Laborers Union, said she has about 15 years of flagging experience.

She said she’s worked on many jobs — small and large — including traffic control for a rock-blasting project at Snoqualmie Pass. She’s currently back to work on a job in Ferndale.

The News Tribune reviewed Vandiver’s credentials and a union representative verified her membership, citing various classes she’s completed dating back to 2008 that included topics ranging from traffic control supervision to soil erosion.

On the Bonney Lake project, Vandiver was hired as the traffic control supervisor but says she was given less authority than she was used to on other projects.

She thought she would work on the overpass, where she would be able to monitor demolition work and communicate with two flaggers below about when to stop traffic.

But once she was on the job site, she said she was told the project foreman would monitor demolition on the overpass and that she would help control traffic from the ground as a second flagger.

Vandiver said she expressed concerns to the foreman about that plan, stressing that the contractor should hire two flaggers so she could work on the overpass.

In an interview with police after the accident, the foreman said he reviewed the approved demolition plan at 7 a.m., about 30 minutes before the concrete cutting started.

According to the police report, he planned to radio flaggers to stop traffic on Angeline Road after workers finished making a long horizontal cut to the concrete barrier being removed. Once they finished with that cut, they planned to make vertical cuts to the barrier.

During the horizontal cutting, the foreman told police, he “observed the bridge leaning in and dropping down to the deck,” but the workers “thought the bridge was just settling on the deck.”

He wrote in a statement that just before the accident he and the concrete cutter “were discussing the barrier’s potential of falling. He assured me it would stay up.”

The concrete cutter said, “there was absolutely no sign or indication that the concrete was going to drop,” according to the police report, and he didn’t know what could have been done differently.

Bob Iyall, chairman and CEO for WHH Nisqually, said he wouldn’t comment on specifics of the project’s traffic control plan.

“There was a plan in place and they were following that plan,” he said.

He acknowledged Vandiver was the traffic control supervisor on the overpass project until she quit WHH Nisqually several weeks ago.

“As far as I know she was a fine employee,” Iyall said.

Vandiver said the accident was not the reason she quit. She said she left after she found out the contractor didn’t plan to keep her on full time after the project, as she’d originally thought.

NO OVERARCHING STANDARD

The construction industry has no standards for who monitors work for flagging purposes, how the work is monitored and how the information is communicated to flaggers.

“That’s all up to the contractor and the road owner,” said Eric Tofte, director of training at Evergreen Safety Council, which trains and certifies traffic control supervisors and flaggers.

He said it’s common that a traffic control supervisor would also perform flagging duties on a job site, as Vandiver was assigned to do for the Bonney Lake project.

Federal guidelines state that oversight of public safety for any traffic control plan rests with the “authority having jurisdiction,” or the owner of the roadway, Tofte said.

General safety procedures for construction projects are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, said Mandi Kime, director of safety for Associated General Contractors of Washington.

“There is no one-size-fits-all safety plan that’s going to cover every aspect of work,” Kime said. “It’s very contingent on a lot of different factors.”

The responsibility for a safe work site, specifically concerning the public, typically lies with the governing agency for the project, Kime said. The owner of the roadway tells the company doing the work how to protect the public, she said. Details often are spelled out in project contracts.

In the case of the state Route 410 project, the City of Bonney Lake was the governing agency.

City officials have told The News Tribune they didn’t know demolition was going to start April 13. But Vandiver says she knew at the end of the previous week that demolition would start that morning.

QUESTIONS LINGER

Vandiver continues to wonder whether she could have minimized harm had she been on top of the overpass before the fatal accident.

From down below, she was too far away from the work to see if danger was imminent, she said.

Vandiver said she’d never seen an accident like this one, and she expects it will be incorporated into flagging classes in the future.

Regardless, it will affect how she does her work, she said.

“I will forever be a lot more adamant about my job,” she said.

It’s a tragedy she says will always follow her.

“I’ll never be the same.”

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