PennDOT internal investigation finds agency not liable for wall collapse

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HARRISBURG - An internal investigation by PennDOT into last month's wall collapse near the Mulberry Street Bridge says the agency is not at fault for the collapse.

PennDOT had completed work on the bridge and on the wall, the latter of which the agency did with the approval of the owners of the McFarland building since the wall was on their property.

"We're very confident that the work we did on the bridge, the minor work we did on the wallway did not contribute to that at all," PennDOT district executive Mike Keiser said Friday.

One of the other key findings confirmed what the agency had been saying since the beginning: that the wall was not engineered as a retaining wall, but had been used as such.

The wall had been built in 1909 by the city of Harrisburg, but city officials have maintained that over the years, ownership of the wall transferred to the property owners of the McFarland building.

Early pictures of the wall show that it did not look like it did now. A photo shared by PennDOT from around 1910 shows the wall standing on its own, without any sediment pressed against it. Over the years, the McFarland owners used backfill that butted up to the wall to construct a small parking lot in front of the building, part of which came crumbling down in the May 5 collapse.

"With the collapse, it pretty much told its own story that this wall had been used for a use that it really wasn't intended," Keiser said. "It was never engineered over the years with the various changes and at some point in time, buckled and gave way."

Another concern from that day was whether saturation from large amounts of rainfall in the days leading up to the collapse could have played a role.

"When the wall collapsed itself, it was still pretty clear that the fill material behind the wall certainly wasn't saturated or anything," Keiser said. "It was pretty dry."

PennDOT has faced scrutiny from the public because of the work it had been doing to the bridge, which is adjacent to the wall, and also because it paid a contractor to remove an overhang off a walkway at the top of the wall because debris was consistently falling on the roof of Howard Tire & Auto.

Howard Henry, the shop's owner, still has tons of debris in the back of the property because of liability concerns and because his insurance would not cover damages as a result of earth movement.

As to where any resolution could come from, and PennDOT's possible role in that, "we're finished," Keiser said.

"The responsibility at this point in time is between the property owners."

 

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