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State fires Big Dig’s chief engineer

Mullan says Ernst failed on collapsed fixture

'Someone in a leadership position like that, I would expect more,' transportation chief Jeffrey Mullan said. "Someone in a leadership position like that, I would expect more," transportation chief Jeffrey Mullan said.
By Mark Arsenault and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / August 3, 2011

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The Patrick administration yesterday fired embattled Big Dig chief engineer Helmut Ernst, the latest official to be forced out over the state’s handling of a light fixture collapse in one of the project’s tunnels.

State Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan had blamed Ernst for failing to notify superiors for more than a month after a corroded 110-pound light fixture broke free and smashed onto the highway in the O’Neill Tunnel in February. Ernst was suspended last month.

After a review of department policies and Ernst’s job performance, which was completed on Friday, Mullan said he decided Ernst could no longer serve as the District 6 highway director, the former title for his job as a top engineer in charge of the Big Dig tunnels.

“It was clear that we lost confidence - I lost confidence - in him, and given some of the issues, someone in a leadership position like that, I would expect more,’’ Mullan told reporters yesterday at the state’s highway operations center in South Boston. Ernst declined last night to comment on his termination.

Mullan said he had offered Ernst other jobs in the Transportation Department, but Ernst, who has worked as an engineer for the state highway system for two decades, declined to take them. The transportation secretary refused to be more specific about his reasons for the firing, saying he needed to protect Ernst’s privacy. Ernst did not get a severance package, Mullan said.

The light fixture failure revealed a potentially deadly threat to Boston drivers: widespread corrosion in lights throughout the 7.5-mile Big Dig tunnel system. The delay by state officials in notifying the public of the collapse sparked outrage and concern about the tunnels’ safety.

In an interview with the Globe last month, Ernst said his team of engineers filed no written report about the collapsed light fixture despite state policy requiring documentation of safety issues.

Ernst admitted his engineers had been wary about writing things down since the 2006 collapse of a Big Dig ceiling panel that killed a woman in a passing car.

“After all the depositions in the ceiling collapse case, we just meet and talk about it. . . . What’s the point of putting it in writing?’’ he said. He said engineers had been “trained not to.’’

Ernst has asserted that the day after the incident, he called his boss, Frank Tramontozzi, who was forced to resign in March as highway administrator for his own role in the mishandling of the light fixture collapse. Tramontozzi insisted that he did not learn about the incident for weeks.

Ernst also contended that he brought up the collapse at a senior staff meeting. But seven other staff members, questioned by a staff lawyer at Mullan’s request, said they did not remember him mentioning it.

Mullan has vehemently denied that engineers were taught not to put safety issues in writing.

“I think anyone who’s watched the DOT over the last couple [of] years knows that we’ve made tremendous, tremendous efforts to be completely transparent,’’ he told the State House News Service yesterday. “People should listen to the statements we’ve made, the amount of attention we’ve had to this issue, the work that we’ve done, put on our website, etc.’’

The transportation secretary, who was reprimanded by the governor for his own failure to notify the public, also denied yesterday that he was pushing out a whistleblower who had spoken out about problems in the Big Dig. “I don’t think that’s related to it all,’’ he said.

He said the firing would not create a chilling effect on other employees that would discourage them from speaking out. “No,’’ he said. “It just didn’t work out, and sometimes it doesn’t work out.’’

Tom Broderick, currently the chief engineer in the highway division, will replace Ernst while the department searches for a permanent replacement.

Mullan plans to leave his own job by the end of the year, but said yesterday that he has not settled on the exact date to step down. “I will let people know when my final decision has been made,’’ he said.

Martin Finucane and Scott Allen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson. Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.