Despite concerns, Dublin failed to install safety device in interchange ponds

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The south pond at the interchange of Rt. 161 and Avery Road in Dublin
The south pond at the interchange of Rt. 161 and Avery Road in Dublin

In recent years, two cars have sunk into a pond at an elaborate Dublin interchange and two men have died. Now WOSU news has learned that despite significant safety concerns, the city never installed a safety measure designed to keep vehicles from sinking.

Last week, 69-year-old Samuel Pittro’s car veered off Avery Road and into a 17-foot pond at the State Route 33 interchange in Dublin. Preliminary autopsy reports say Pittro drowned. In 2004, 46-year-old Douglas Schaefer suffered a seizure behind the wheel. Schaefer’s car also veered off Avery Road and went into the same pond. Schaefer also drowned.

And these are just the kinds of accidents the some officials with the Ohio Department of Transportation feared.

The interchange links Route 161/33 to Avery Road. In the late 90′s Dublin spent $9-million to build and beautify what is the entrance to its Muirfield section. It has lush lawns, landscaped trees and bushes, stone walls, and two large ponds with fountains.

It was the ponds that worried some officials with the Ohio Department of Transportation. They feared cars could end up in the water and they demanded Dublin change its plans. In December, 1998 an engineer with ODOT’s Central Ohio District opposed the ponds. Daniel Wise said they “creat(ed) unnecessary hazards to the interchange.”

Nancy Burton speaks for ODOT’s Central Ohio district.

“It’s only natural that there were questions and concerns as to how it would work and the safety of it,” Burton said.

After what was called fierce arguments, Dublin and the state appeared to come to an agreement. WOSU news obtained documents that indicate in 1999 Dublin city officials agreed with an ODOT request that it install underwater grates. The grates were to be just under the surface and in theory, would keep cars from sinking more than two feet into the water.

READ THE DOCUMENTS

But the grates were never installed. Instead, short stone walls were built around the ponds, except on the Avery Road side where both cars entered the water. A spokeswoman for the city of Dublin says ODOT approved the plans that excluded the grates. After the May 1999 letters which describe the agreement to install the grates, no other documents even mention the grates or the agreement.Paul Hammersmith became the City of Dublin’s engineer in 2002. And Hammersmith says he can only speculate as to why the city did not install the grates.

“I think they went back and looked and obviously they felt the walls were a better solution, you know the barrier walls around the ponds than the grates. You know, there isn’t any documentation that says that that I can put my hands on. But for people that were around and part of that discussion at that time that’s what I believe happened,” Hammersmith said.

When asked why the grates the ODOT suggested be put in the ponds were not installed, O-DOT’S Nancy Burton says the department does not have that answer. “We don’t know what happened there. And there’s two factors, the feasibility could have been an issue in terms of was it feasible once those grates were suggested,” Burton said.

Dublin officials agreed to pay $100,000 to build the grates. And O-DOT reluctantly agreed to would pay any additional costs. Again, Nancy Burton, The decision about what happened to those grates were made, at least from O-DOT, by two people who are no longer here. And, so, in the end this was a Dublin project.

Hammersmith says original discussions about safety were not about protecting vehicles from the Avery Road side only those driving on the ramps on and off State Route 33. He says that’s because Avery Road has a 35 mile per hour speed limit. And the distance from the curb to the pond is 120 feet allowing what he says should be enough time for a person to recover control of their vehicle if they veer off the road. But the slopes from Avery road to the pond are steep.

In 2004, 120 feet was not enough time for Douglas Schaefer from the Columbus’s West side to recover control of his car. Investigators found he had suffered a seizure behind the wheel. When asked if the City of Dublin considered installing the grates after Schaefer died Hammersmith said no.

“Really when we understood the circumstances of that accident, once we had the full accident report, we took a look at the situation and really felt, given the circumstance of that accident and the fact that the gentleman just did not have control of his vehicle at all at that time, that there were reasonable measures in place,” said Hammersmith.

Hammersmith says the investigation indicated Schaefer suffered from a seizure disorder.

Schaefer’s mother, Mary Ann Swarmer, who lives in Grove City, says she thinks the grates would have helped her son.

“Oh I imagine it would have, because he had seizures before and if the squad had gotten to him it probably would have saved his life,” said Schaefer.

Now that there has been a second death from the Avery Road side of the pond Hammersmith says the city is considering what it might do to prevent any more cars from going into the pond. “But you do have to put reasonable measures in place. And if you go back to the original design, I would consider the measures that were in place at that time to be reasonable for a 35 mph roadway and provide sufficient recovery area. But we really do not want vehicles to be, to be able to get into the pond. And now that we know that two vehicles have been able to do that then we ought to consider what might we put in place, once we have full information from the accident report, what we might consider to prevent that from happening in the future.”

Swarmer says she hopes the city will take some kind of action and pay whatever it costs to keep another vehicle from entering the pond. “Why should you wait for a third? That’s disgraceful. How much money would it cost and is it worth somebody’s life.”

WOSU’s Mike Thompson contributed to this story.

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