Two years after he hit the ground in Rock Creek Park and the 13-ton beams landed on top of him, former ironworker Robert Griffith is getting around by wheelchair and grit, the lower halves of his legs long gone.
Some relatives recoiled at the sight of him pulling himself along the floor and into wheelchair-unfriendly bathrooms on his rear end, but that wasn't the worst of it. The toughest emotion has been frustration with his lost independence.
"It's like a little kid in a playpen. You've got a thing in your hand and you throw it out of the playpen and you can't get it," Griffith explained this week. "It's just out of your reach, but you can see it."
Griffith, 35, was crippled while working on a Military Road NW bridge in August 1997. He agreed this month to accept $6.4 million from Fort Myer Construction Corp. and a host of subcontractors, avoiding an autumn trial in D.C. Superior Court. He figures to invest the money, help his family and live as comfortably as he can.
When he passes construction sites, he thinks this: "You wonder who's going to be the next victim of somebody's stupidity."
Griffith was working on a project to demolish and rebuild the bridge over Beach Drive NW. He and his attorneys contend that the supervisor for BCB Construction Inc.--part of the Berg Group, based in Baltimore--planned a ruinous way of moving heavy I-beams atop the overpass. Fort Myer employees and District safety monitors should have intervened but didn't, charged lawyer Joseph H. Koonz Jr.
"This whole scheme of moving the steel was absolutely flawed," Koonz said. "It was a wannabe engineer for Berg, in a hurry, under pressure, who designed a system that was destined to fail. Sad to say, Fort Myer went along with it. So did the city government."
Griffith and co-worker Lionel Williams, harnessed to the bridge and 15 feet above the ground, fell as the structure gave way. Williams was crushed by falling metal and died at the scene. A beam pinned Griffith to the ground.
Rescue workers spent two hours extricating him, amputating his left leg to free him as they talked him down from fits of agony. He lost his right leg 22 months later, in June, despite ambitious efforts by George Washington University Hospital surgeons to save it.
"All I remember is hearing something go and Mr. Williams trying to unhook. I was trying to unhook and I was hit in the face and I whited out and was on the ground, stuck," Griffith said. As rescuers worked, he said, he was feeling "excruciating pain and starting to lose it."
Fort Myer Vice President Christopher Kerns pointed a finger at BCB Construction, saying BCB was "not only sloppy but probably irresponsible." He said Fort Myer relied on the Berg firm's assertions that it had sufficient expertise in bridge demolition and had consulted an engineer.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited BCB in 1998 for what it termed "serious" violations on the Military Road site. Inspectors said BCB did not use appropriate steel brackets and concrete anchors and failed to obtain the approval of a licensed engineer for the system in use when the accident occurred.
David Berg, president of the Berg Group, did not return a call seeking comment. The D.C. government, which was responsible for the bridge contract and employed on-site safety monitors, Koonz said, was not a defendant in Griffith's lawsuit.
Griffith, who lives in Waldorf, spends much of his energy these days learning to walk again. His artificial lower left leg ends in a sports sneaker. His right leg will be fitted with a prosthesis when it heals from the June amputation.
He is learning to manage on crutches. He fishes when he can reach the water. He visits relatives in West Virginia and Georgia, and a South Carolina time-share with his wife. He reports, "The doctor thing is almost over with."
"You've got to take it one day at a time. I don't know what my full ability is because I'm not to that point," Griffith said. "When you get penned in for a couple years, it's like a rat in a cage. I almost went nuts for about 18 months. There's only so much TV you can watch."
There are no million-dollar houses in Griffith's immediate future, he said. He hopes to support his extended family, which he described as "under middle-class." He would like a one-floor house with solid wheelchair ramps and a nice bathroom. And, one day, a pickup truck that he can drive.
"We sued for $20 million and we got a little over $10 million," Koonz said.
In fact, the 1997 civil suit filed by Koonz sought $30 million on Griffith's behalf. The corporate defendants agreed to give Griffith $6.4 million, of which Koonz and his partners will receive 33 percent, or about $2.1 million.
By choosing to invest $1 million of the payout in an annuity, Griffith will receive another $4.1 million during the next 40 years, said Koonz, who counts that sum as part of the settlement. The Williams family settled separately for $930,000, Koonz said.
Griffith, who calls himself a practical man, figures he's set, at least financially. Which does not mean things ever seem easy. Asked what his days are like, he answered, "Sometimes long."