The Virginia Department of Transportation initially failed to tell tenants at an Alexandria apartment complex it owns that ceilings there had collapsed, and then failed to identify as a cause the heavy construction from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project just yards away, according to records, e-mails and memoranda.
Although no one was injured in the ceiling collapses in March, they immediately raised concerns about the stability of other ceilings in the complex and caused the agency to stop its pile driving nearby.
Yet for two weeks, VDOT officials did not disclose that ceilings had fallen. And when officials did disclose the collapses, records show that officials blamed the mishaps on improper ceiling anchors, and not the vibrations from construction and heavy equipment operations that were identified by engineers as the likely cause.
Throughout, highway officials allowed tenants to remain in the buildings, a decision that residents have said endangered them given the history of ceiling failures at the Hunting Terrace apartments.
Four years ago, a maintenance worker was seriously injured in a collapse there, but VDOT officials said recently they were unaware of those problems.
Alexandria officials also said they did not know that ceilings in the complex had fallen, though the city honored the injured maintenance man for bravery after he was injured while shielding an elderly tenant from falling debris.
VDOT purchased the complex in 2001 so some of the apartment buildings could be demolished to make way for a $2.4 billion replacement bridge project, and so rent rolls could help defray the costs of the work.
As of last week, VDOT had completed replacing the ceilings in all 116 units of the apartment complex on South Washington Street, at a cost of $925,000 to the cash-strapped agency.
"Safety was always paramount," said Ronaldo T. "Nick" Nicholson, the VDOT bridge project manager. "It was the concern when we first purchased it. It was the concern when the ceilings fell, and it is now as we complete the repairs. And bottom line, nobody has gotten hurt."
Engineers also have changed construction methods for the bridge because of concerns that more pile driving might weaken the 50-year-old brick garden apartments. Instead of driving piles in constructing the bridge's approaches, holes are drilled for the supports and the pilings are driven only the last few feet into the ground, engineers said.
But many tenants have said the apartments represent a conflict of interest for VDOT because the department is both landlord and bridge-builder. The agency, critics have said, has put the bridge construction schedule and rent receipts ahead of the safety of residents. For a while, VDOT hung a banner on one building advertising units for lease, despite the fact that many of the units are yards from one of the East Coast's biggest highway projects. The agency also raised rents.
"VDOT mouths about safety all the time," said Ardith Dentzer, the tenant association's president. "But at the same time, that hasn't proven to be the case."
After the collapses March 6 and 9, VDOT officials publicly blamed poor original building construction, but privately they were less sure. In a March 15 e-mail to VDOT officials, Nicholson noted that one collapse occurred adjacent to a haul road used by heavy construction vehicles. The second collapse occurred next to a pile-driving operation.
"Our engineers are surveying the damage and have concluded that it is a result of vibration caused by installation of the sheet piles behind the apartments," project engineer Christopher W. Sherard wrote March 9, the day of the second collapse. Two subsequent investigations by structural engineering firms "acknowledged the proximity of the impacted buildings to construction operations," VDOT engineers wrote in a later e-mail.
Although tests revealed that the work measured below acceptable vibration limits for the project, Nicholson was concerned enough about the link between construction and the collapses to order a halt to the movement of heavy trucks near the buildings and to sheet pile-driving. He also raised concerns about whether the project's vibration limits were set too high for "the 50-year-old masonry garden apartment buildings."
None of those concerns was raised in letters to residents.
On March 10, when officials wanted to inspect whether any other apartments were in danger, they posted a note giving another reason. The notice said that engineers would be entering apartments "in conjunction with the exterior structural assessments done on the terrace building in October of 2003." The structural assessment the memo was referring to was completed and a report issued in November. There were no plans for further assessments, Nicholson said.
On March 20, an unsigned "Dear Resident" letter slipped under tenants' doors first alerted residents to the collapses. The letter blamed the collapses solely on shoddy original construction, including the use of ungrooved nails to hold up the heavy plaster ceilings.
The memo also told residents that further testing would be done "to better understand soil and other conditions, which will help us to mitigate noise and other possible impacts during the driving of subsequent pilings." Engineers actually were planning emergency seismic tests to determine whether the buildings were in further danger.
Nicholson said he waited the two weeks to inform residents about the ceiling problems to prevent fear.
"Before I start a panic, I want to know what happened and what is at risk," he said. "As an engineer, I don't want to go out and say things I don't know."
On April 5, Nicholson issued an official "conclusion of fact" that the impact of pile driving and construction activities on the ceiling collapses "cannot be confirmed."
Bridge construction officials, however, have stopped driving piles near the apartments and are redesigning part of the bridge project to use the drilling method that causes less vibration.
VDOT has stopped renting vacant garden apartments at what is now known as Hunting Point and is allowing residents throughout the complex to break their leases and move out early. (The two remaining brick eight-story towers that VDOT owns across the street have not been affected by ceiling problems and are being rented.)
As soon as VDOT found out about the ceiling dangers, officials said they took quick -- and expensive -- measures to protect residents, paying to move them into temporary quarters, store their furniture and redo the ceilings in all units. The last ceiling repair was done last week.
A Hero's Incident
At a heated public meeting March 22, tenants contended that VDOT knew -- or should have known -- about the prior ceiling collapses.
Former maintenance worker Trevlin Carter said he warned bridge project managers about the danger involving the ceilings. He said he had firsthand knowledge of the problem.
On Feb. 3, 2000, Carter went into an elderly resident's apartment to repair a ceiling light fixture. He was on a ladder when he heard a loud snap and saw a puff of dust come from the far side of the room. He watched as a crack in the ceiling raced toward him. Quickly, he jumped off the ladder and threw himself over the tenant, protecting her from the falling chunks of plaster and debris. Carter was knocked unconscious; when he soon regained consciousness, he saw a thankful resident wiping blood from his eyes. He spent the next few months recuperating from a serious concussion and other injuries.
He received an award for heroism from the city of Alexandria.
Carter said he told VDOT officials, "Someone is going to be killed." Ceilings there had collapsed about a half-dozen times, he said. "From the day [VDOT] arrived, they knew about the ceilings. My fear was having what happened to me happen to someone else."
But VDOT officials said they had no knowledge of weak ceilings until the collapses in March. In a statement released last week, VDOT acknowledged that the ceiling issue was a "pre-existing problem."
Apparently, it was a problem not later detected. Woodrow Wilson Bridge project officials said that their pre-purchase inspection of Hunting Point apartments in June 2001 was mostly visual. Neither maintenance records nor occupied units were inspected, they said.
Nicholson said that because the occupied apartments had passed annual city inspections, "we had no indications or cause for concern."
Another reason for the lack of an in-depth inspection, VDOT officials said, was that the value was in the land, not the aging apartments. All along, VDOT planned to sell the properties after the bridge construction.
If there is a question about what VDOT knew or should have known, the record is clear that the city of Alexandria was aware of at least the collapse that resulted in Carter's injuries.
Emily Kelly, a former property manager at the apartment complex, said the city launched an investigation of the ceilings shortly after Carter's accident. She remembers that inspectors used a broomstick to tap the ceilings to test for structural integrity. She said the city then ordered the owner, Kay Management, to fix some ceilings.
"They were aware of all of it," Kelly said, referring to Alexandria officials.
Alexandria officials said they have no records of any emergency inspections or required repairs. A city spokeswoman questioned the authenticity of Carter's award, saying she was told that the city Fire Department does not issue awards for heroism.
After being shown Carter's award plaque and a photograph of him with former Fire Chief Thomas M. Hawkins, city officials acknowledged that they obviously knew something about the ceiling problem at Hunting Point, but they cannot find the records, they said.
"Nobody recalled the award and nobody recalls the follow-up that Emily Kelly is talking about," Alexandria City Manager Philip G. Sunderland said. "She is either mistaken or we can't lay our hands on the knowledge or the records."
Sunderland said the city performed rigorous annual safety inspections of rental apartments, including Hunting Point. He said city officials would act quickly if city residents were in danger.
But, Sunderland said, "It is not our job to warn VDOT. If somebody is going to buy some property, they undertake their own due diligence. I assume VDOT did it and did it well."
The Tenants' Distrust
Until the construction in the area is complete, VDOT has several buildings filled with angry, distrustful tenants who say the agency has been happy to collect their rents but has generally viewed them as human inconveniences to efficient bridge building.
Even though new ceilings have been installed and all 116 garden apartment units have been refurbished, some residents want to leave immediately. Others are looking for monetary incentives similar to the thousands of dollars in relocation funds provided to residents of units scheduled for razing.
In 2001, when VDOT decided to count on rent receipts to help pay for the bridge, the agency ruled out an expensive buyout of tenants. But on April 2, after the ceiling dangers became public, VDOT officials wrote to federal highway administrators asking for permission to offer existing tenants as much as $7,500 in move-out incentives. VDOT officials withdrew the request three days later, after federal officials made it clear they didn't support the buyout, VDOT officials said.
Nicholson said the agency will allow any residents who feel the conditions are unsafe to break their leases -- with their last month being rent-free. That is not enough for some residents.
"It is a waste of taxpayer money to redo those ceilings. Why even bother?" said Dentzer, the tenant association president. "It would be cheaper, wiser and safer to just move people out."