How the investigation unfolded

05/18/2013 8:30 PM

04/12/2014 7:26 PM

Joel Sayre, a former spokesman for the Bay Bridge project, brought concerns about corroded skyway tendons to The Bee in November 2011.

Sayre left the project in 2007. He said he had been troubled for years by doubts about the structural integrity of the skyway, and about what he regarded as improper concealment of the corrosion problem.

In his job as a tour guide, promoter and Web manager, Sayre was a true believer in the structure. That changed after chief skyway engineer Doug Coe found substantial evidence of tendon corrosion. He approached Sayre, whose bosses were out of town, to ask what he should do.

"We say nothing," Sayre said he instinctively told the worried engineer. "We wait."

"My whole job (was) to make the bridge sound awesome," Sayre said. The public relations team tried to hide or steer attention away from anything that might tarnish the carefully honed image of the new span as a pristine engineering marvel, he said. "So when I have the (top engineer) come in and tell me about these crazy post-tension cable problems, I'm not an idiot, right?" Sayre said. "I know immediately that this is a huge problem that I will never need to talk about at all. Ever."

Soon after, Sayre informed his boss Bart Ney, then-chief project spokesman. Ney told Sayre to refer all tendon questions from the public or media to himself or Toll Bridge Program Manager Tony Anziano – the project's chief executive – according to Sayre.

Caltrans declined a request for an interview with Anziano.

Ney, who left the bridge team earlier this year when his contract was canceled, said in an interview that "the corrosion issue was just one that came up and was solved. No one saw it as a story."

Ney said that his job was to get information about the bridge out to the public.

"I have never been a part of any restriction of information," he said.

Sayre remembers the situation differently.

"We understood that this might all go bad one day," Sayre said later, that the tendon problem might become known publicly.

"We didn't do a lot of emails. We didn't do a lot of texts. We didn't do a lot of phone calls. We were pros" at keeping anything discoverable in a court case or public records request to a minimum, he said. "But we always thought, 'oh my God, why do we have these stupid diaries?' "

Sayre was referring to about 80,000 pages of inspection diaries that detailed the construction process. The Bee obtained those records last year, under the California Public Records Act, after months of delay by Caltrans.

In 2007, Sayre quit his job to teach high school, and later earned a master's degree in public administration. He discussed the tendons in his thesis.

After The Bee published an investigation about the tower foundation for the suspension-span portion of the new bridge, Sayre – by then operating a small business – resolved to make a more serious effort to air his concerns.

To understand the possible significance of the corrosion problem, The Bee contacted more than 60 specialists in bridge engineering and corrosion science.

One of those was University of South Florida corrosion expert Alberto A. Sagüés. Sagüés knew all about the problem because Caltrans had hired him as its sole independent evaluator of a detailed study it conducted but had never made public.

The agency released the report six weeks after The Bee requested it under the state Public Records Act.

The Bee compared the corrosion study's findings and assumptions against the inspection diaries and about 35,000 pages of other records obtained from insiders, released under the public records act, or online. These included engineering plans, tendon logs and contracts.

Some of the experts interviewed by The Bee reviewed Caltrans' corrosion study and hundreds of pages of other material about the bridge.

Using dates in those documents for the insertion, stressing and grouting of tendons with a cement-based filler, The Bee calculated exposure times in ungrouted ducts. In some cases, the diaries and other logs contradicted each other. The Bee used the most conservative dates – erring on the side of shorter, less worrisome exposures. Therefore, the calculations in this story might underestimate the possible corrosion problems.

Call The Bee's Charles Piller, (916) 321-1113. Follow him on Twitter @cpiller.

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