SF: BART Workers Cut Phone Lines

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BART Workers Cut Phone Lines on Peninsula Again More than 5,000 connections down

Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, September 1, 2000

To some, it must have seemed like a case of deja vu.

For the second time in barely two months, thousands of Peninsula telephone lines went dead yesterday after workers digging the BART extension to San Francisco International Airport sliced through Pacific Bell's buried phone cables.

The damage was not as extensive as the June 26 fire that wiped out 32,000 phone lines in San Bruno and South San Francisco for nearly two weeks, hurting businesses and frustrating residents.

Yesterday's accident affected fewer than 5,500 phone lines in San Bruno, Millbrae and the airport, Pacific Bell estimated, and repairs should be completed by Monday.

However, there are similarities between the two outages. Yesterday's accident occurred just two miles from the site of the June 26 fire. The workers who cut the lines yesterday worked for Tutor-Saliba/Slattery, the same contractor whose workers started the June fire with sparks from a cutting torch.

And yesterday's accident, like the June 26 fire, may have been caused by human error.

An Aug. 24 investigative report by the San Bruno Fire Department ruled that the June fire was caused by workers carelessly using a cutting torch over a wooden cable conduit and charged BART with failing to obtain proper permits for the work. BART spokesman Dave Madden has contested the permits issue, but called the fire an avoidable accident.

Madden said yesterday that the new outage was caused by workers preparing to drive sheet piles -- huge sheets of metal that will form the walls, allowing workers to dig the subway's trench.

As is normal with any excavation project, the locations of utility lines, which run perpendicular to the BART line, were marked at the site at Angus and Huntington avenues, Madden said. But workers managed to drill through the cables anyway.

``The real mystery and the real question for our investigators is how were these things ignored or overlooked,'' Madden said. ``Obviously somebody missed the boat here.'' Tony Tuifua, an independent construction worker who lives on Fifth Avenue in San Bruno, said his phone was out for at least six hours yesterday, causing him to lose business. However, he understood how the accident could occur. ``You read the plans wrong -- sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't. You drill too far, or you move too far, and it's going to happen,'' Tuifua said.

BART plans to fully investigate yesterday's accident, Madden said, as well as how well Southern California-based Tutor-Saliba, one of the nation's largest general contractors, is doing its job.

``This is a $530 million contract. We are more than 65 percent completed with the contract. We have contractual obligations with this contractor. We also have arranged for insurance coverage (for the project),'' Madden said. ``We're not necessarily going to cast all of that aside, but we're certainly going to take a stern look at how the contract is being executed.''

Meanwhile, Pacific Bell workers are back in the hole and on overtime, once again laboriously splicing lines back together.

``This is frustrating for customers, and this is frustrating for us as well,'' Pacific Bell spokesman Rodd Aubrey said. ``We're the victims of an accident here, and we're going to be out here taking care of it as soon as we can.''


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 01, 2000

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