Steel straps holding up the electrical conduits in the Lehigh Tunnel on the Northeast Extension had corroded, causing a large section to collapse , piercing the windshield of a New Jersey truck, killing the driver, according to a report released Tuesday. The National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report on the Feb. 21 accident found that fans and electrical conduits — pipes that hold the electric wires for tunnel lights and ventilation fans — were last inspected on the southbound lanes in 2016. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was in the process of awarding a contract to relocate the electrical system from directly above the travel lanes onto the outside edges of the tunnel walls, according to the report.
Howard Sexton III, 70, of Gloucester County, N.J., was hauling furniture for Raymour & Flanigan around 6 p.m. Feb. 21 when his truck struck a piece of conduit that had fallen from the ceiling. State police said several vehicles then ran into the conduit, but Sexton was the only driver injured. According to the NTSB report, Sexton had driven about 1,000 feet through the nearly 4,400-foot tunnel when his truck struck the 10-foot-long section of conduit that had broken away from the ceiling. Sexton continued driving through the tunnel and emergency workers found him in his truck on the Turnpike shoulder hours later, about 8:50 p.m. The Lehigh County Coroner ruled his death an accident caused when he was hit in the head by the conduit.
The Lehigh Tunnel is two side-by-side tunnels, one each for northbound and southbound traffic. Built in 1991, the southbound side is the newest of the Turnpike system’s five tunnels and the only one with a conduit directly above traffic. Earlier this month, The Morning Call obtained a nearly 900-page inspection report through the state’s Right-to-Know Law that showed prior evidence of some conduits being in poor shape on the walls and ceiling of the southbound tunnel. “There are missing conduit supports throughout the tunnel,” read the inspection report from September and October 2016.
Missing and bent conduit supports, corroding conduits and separating conduits were found, the report read. While the inspectors documented the conduit conditions, they did not flag them as an “immediate concern,” but did list them among about three dozen “priority repair items” for the Lehigh Tunnel. “Repair or replace corroded, broken or separated conduits, junction boxes and conduit bodies in the tunnel,” the inspection report recommended.