UC Berkeley News


Campus responds to roadway disaster with engineering expertise; employees encounter few commute woes

02 May 2007

A Berkeley civil engineering professor - a leading expert on the response of steel and composite structures to earthquakes, bombs, and other extreme events - has received funding from the National Science Foundation to investigate the collapse of a section of freeway following last Sunday's fiery tanker-truck crash in the MacArthur Maze.

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 spent more than four hours on Monday 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, our team can establish the temperatures that the steel girders were exposed to and the length of time the exposure lasted."

Astaneh has extensive experience in investigations of such disasters, having studied both the collapse of a deck segment of the Bay Bridge resulting from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"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.

Smelling the flowers

Meanwhile, an informal poll of campus faculty and staff revealed no significant changes to their daily commute as a result of the highway collapse. Some two dozen respondents to a Berkeleyan e-mail indicated that most of the usual epiphenomena associated with getting to Berkeley from various Bay Area locales each morning appeared their normal selves, at least on Monday, the first workday following the accident.

Those who typically drive to campus, and who chose to do so on Monday despite widespread speculation about traffic chaos, encountered few difficulties. One respondent reported finding the early-morning traffic on I-80 near University Avenue northbound to be much lighter than usual. Another, who customarily takes surface streets through Berkeley, anticipated finding those arteries a bit more crowded, and did so.

Non-drivers also reported few if any delays related to the accident. Most BART riders agreed that service was "pretty normal" - despite Monday's "free ride" policy - attributing that to the rapid-transit district's decision to add cars to the morning and afternoon trains. Users of AC Transit from various points around the East Bay also observed little impact on schedules or travel time.

A handful of respondents took the opportunity to proclaim the benefits of auto-free travel. Said one, a confirmed cyclist: "I don't know if I have ever smelled such lovely flowers as this year. Maybe I'm just noticing them more!"