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Families of four killed in Highland Park flash flood sue city, others

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 10:56 a.m.
W. Christopher Griffith, left, listens while his attorney, Alan Perer, discusses Griffith's civil case against the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, the County of Allegheny and several other entities which their lawsuit deems responsible for the deaths of Griffith's wife Kimberly, and daughters Mikaela and Brenna who were cause in the flash flood that trapped the family along Washington Boulevard on August 19, 2011. The family of Mary Saflin, who was also killed in the flash flood, is also a plaintiff in the case. (JC Schisler | Tribune-Review)
Family photo of Kimberly Griffith who was killed with her daughters Mikaela and Brenna during the flash on Washington Boulevard on August 19, 2011.
Family photo of Brenna Griffith who was killed with her sister Mikaela and Mother Kimberly during the flash on Washington Boulevard on August 19, 2011.
Family photo of Mikaela Griffith who was killed with her sister Brenna and Mother Kimberly during the flash on Washington Boulevard on August 19, 2011.
Family photo of Mary Saflin who was killed during the flash on Washington Boulevard on August 19, 2011.
Vehicles drive on Washington Boulevard in East Liberty during a rainstorm on Wednesday July 18, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Christopher Griffith paused on Friday and looked at pictures of his wife and two daughters who drowned 17 months ago in a flash flood in Highland Park.

“My family's been devastated,” said Griffith, whose wife Kimberly Griffith, 46, and two daughters, Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, died Aug. 19, 2011, on Washington Boulevard when a wall of water submerged their Chrysler Town and Country SUV. “I miss them terribly every day.”

Mary Saflin, 72, of Oakmont also died in the flood as the water swept her away from her car. Crews found her body the next day along the Allegheny River.

Christopher Griffith, 52, of Plum and Saflin's son, Nicholas Saflin, 47, of Bellevue, filed an eight-count, 40-page lawsuit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court claiming that government officials knew the area was prone to dangerous flooding for the past 60 years but failed to take action. The lawsuit names the city, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Allegheny County, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, Moon-based Chester Engineers, PennDOT and the state. Chrysler is named because the plaintiffs' say the Griffiths were unable to escape from the vehicle because the electric windows could not operate underwater and the water pressure prevented them from opening the doors. Christopher Griffith also has a 19-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son.

Michael Palese, a spokesman for Chrysler, said the company hadn't been served with papers.

“The 2006 Chrysler Town and Country meets or exceeds all applicable safety standards and has an excellent safety record,” Palese said.

Representatives for the county, Chester, Alcosan and PennDOT declined to comment. Calls to the PWSA were not returned.

Griffith said he didn't hear anything or receive support from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office after the flood.

Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Ravenstahl, said the administration worked with PennDOT to install a flood gate system on Washington Boulevard, trained 2,000 public safety employees on how best to respond to swift-water situations and bought additional equipment to respond to floods. She said the mayor directed PWSA to hire an outside firm to identify stormwater management solutions in all flood-prone city areas.

“My heart aches for the victims of the Washington Boulevard tragedy and their families. While I can only imagine the pain these families continue to go through, I understand their frustration,” Ravenstahl said in a prepared statement. “I want to ensure them and the public that we've taken action to make sure a terrible tragedy like this never happens again.”

Alan Perer, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, called the flood gates and warning system “stop-gap measures.”

“It should never have happened,” Perer said. “If any of these people had done anything for more than 60 years, they could have prevented this.”

The lawsuit claims that government officials have ignored the “man-made drowning pool” for more than 60 years, citing a newspaper article from June 10, 1951, that details a flash flood on Washington Boulevard where one woman drowned and a dozen others were injured. The lawsuit also cited multiple other newspaper stories detailing flooding on the street during the past several decades.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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