PITTSBURGH – Surviving relatives of four people killed in flash flooding in Pittsburgh in August 2011 sued several government and private entities Friday, claiming the deaths could have been prevented.
Mary Saflin, 72, of Oakmont, was swept from outside her vehicle into a sewer conduit, while Kimberly Griffith, 45, and her daughters, Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, drowned in their minivan when sudden heavy rains caused a 9-foot wall of water to sweep down a low-lying section of road during afternoon rush hour Aug. 19, 2011.
“We have filed this suit to hold people accountable,” attorney Alan Perer said, for what he called the “terrible deaths; needless, senseless deaths.”
The lawsuit targets the city, its water and sewer authority, Allegheny County and its sewage authority, Chester Engineering Inc. – which has worked as a consultant with both sewer agencies – the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and even Chrysler Group LLC, which made the Griffiths’ van.
The defendants either didn’t return emails and phone messages, or declined to comment like PennDOT, Allegheny County and its sewage authority, Alcosan. Chrysler spokesman Mike Palese said, “The 2006 Chrysler Town & Country minivan meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record.”
The lawsuit contends city, county and other authorities “have permitted a man-made drowning pool to exist in the 13 foot ‘basin’ at the bottom of Washington Boulevard.”
Perer and co-counsel Paul Manion said they’ve determined at least 30 flash floods have stranded vehicles in the same spot since one person was killed and 12 injured in a flood June 9, 1951. At various times since, city officials and others have proposed improvements – including simple warning signs that would have cost $20,000 back then – but little had been done until the 2011 deaths, the attorneys said.
“My family has been devastated,” said W. Christopher Griffith, 52, whose wife and daughters were killed, but still has a son, 19, and another daughter, 16. “I’m angry that it’s been going on for 60 years. I’m not real thrilled with the response I’ve seen since the incident.”
City, state and county officials have since studied the site, and PennDOT has spent $450,000 to install automatic gates that close portions of the road and automatically alert emergency responders if a certain amount of water is detected. The city also has trained about 1,700 public safety employees in swift-water rescue tactics since the flooding, which witnesses described as chaotic.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said the city also has hired an outside engineering firm to take a fresh look at stormwater management in flood-prone areas, adding that his “heart aches for the victims.”
“While I can only imagine the pain these families continue to go through, I understand their frustration. I want to ensure them, and the public, that we’ve taken action to make sure a terrible tragedy like this never happens again,” Ravenstahl said Friday.
The water was so deep that rescuers in a boat intent on rescuing a man from a tree floated over the Griffiths’ van without realizing it, city emergency management officials told the Associated Press the day after the flood.
People were clinging to trees, poles and car roofs. One woman tried to scramble to the roof of her car but the water was moving so fast, she was dragged along in it, then grabbed on to a truck.
Perer, the attorney, said Chrysler is being sued because the electric windows on the Griffiths’ Town and County minivan didn’t work once submerged and the water pressure kept the victims from opening the doors to escape.
Perer said in addition to unspecified monetary damages, he’d like to see the automaker include in its owner’s manual instructions for drivers who become submerged and if electric windows can’t be made foolproof underwater, maybe other safety equipment could be included.
“When this kind of vehicle is caught in a serious flood, getting out of it can be difficult or impossible,” Perer said. “It becomes a trap, and it will take lives. Here, it killed a mother and her young children.”