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Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Engineer receives NSF grant to study MacArthur Maze freeway collapse

– A University of California, Berkeley, civil engineering professor and one of the country's leading experts on the response of steel and composite structures to earthquakes, bombs and other extreme events, has received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate the collapse of the MacArthur Maze freeway ramps after last Sunday's fiery tanker truck crash.

Abolhassan Astaneh
Abolhassan Astaneh (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Abolhassan Astaneh, principal investigator for the $25,000 NSF grant, has formed a team to collect evidence from the site, including samples of the steel support beams and photographs of the collapsed roadways. He already spent more than four hours yesterday at the site of the crash, investigating the structure and collecting perishable data for future research.

"Once work crews remove the debris, it will be too late to get the data we need, so it's extremely important to move right away to document the damage and to collect fire-affected girders and connections" said Astaneh. "By testing these samples, my colleagues, professors Claudia Ostertag, an expert in reinforced concrete and materials, and R. Brady Williamson, an expert in fire engineering, and I can establish the temperatures that the steel girders were exposed to, and the length of time the exposure lasted."

Early Sunday morning, a truck loaded with reportedly 8,600 gallons of fuel, burst into flames after it crashed into a guardrail and took out two overpasses in one of the San Francisco Bay Area's most important freeway interchanges. The fire softened the steel girders of the elevated roadway connecting eastbound traffic from the San Francisco Bay Bridge onto Interstate 580. The roadway collapsed onto the freeway below, connecting southbound Interstate 80 to Interstate 880.

Astaneh has extensive experience in investigations of such disasters. In 1989 and in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, using a similar NSF grant, he conducted the investigation of the collapse of a deck segment of the Bay Bridge and damage to the steel structures. He was particularly interested in the MacArthur Maze, noting that it had survived the quake with some minor damage to its concrete pier. He later testified before the state's Board of Inquiry on the Loma Prieta Earthquake formed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian.

In 2001, Astaneh received another NSF grant to study the collapse of the World Trade Center towers right after the tragic Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He presented his findings before the Committee on Science of the House of Representatives in 2002.

"There are parallels between the failure of the MacArthur Maze ramps and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers," he said. "Both incidents were caused by a massive fire, fed by a large amount of fuel, weakening the steel structure."

Astaneh expects to report his initial findings on the MacArthur Maze collapse within the next two weeks.