CINCINNATI – William Burgett and Lester Rinehart began Kokosing Construction in 1954. They had one acre of land on Waterford Road in Fredericktown – enough space for a two-desk office and a shop.
They began the business building and remodeling houses for clients in Knox County. They repaired churches and small businesses.
Sixty-six years later, with the nation watching, Kokosing Construction was chosen to repair one of the Midwest's key transportation vessels following a fiery crash.
The company not only completed the project, but did so ahead of schedule.
Kokosing Construction was awarded the contract for the Brent Spence Bridge repair project in Cincinnati. The bridge carries Interstates 71 and 75 over the Ohio River between Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, transporting roughly 200,000 vehicles per day.
On Nov. 11, at approximately 2:45 a.m., a commercial motor vehicle jackknifed while driving northbound on the bridge, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. After the CMV truck jackknifed, a second truck – carrying potassium hydroxide – crashed into it.
The collision caused a fire on the bridge. Emergency management personnel said 400 gallons of diesel fuel and 110 pounds of potassium hydroxide were spilled, and officials arrived to see both trucks engulfed in flames. The fire burned for approximately two hours before crews were able to put it out; according to local authorities, both drivers emerged injury-free.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet was forced to close the bridge for several days as inspections and clean-up efforts ensued. While the crash occurred on the bridge's lower deck (it contains two levels), the top deck was shut down as well due to damage from the fire.
The bridge's structural integrity was not compromised, inspectors found, but both decks suffered substantial damage from the inferno, which reached 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit at one point.
In the days following the crash, as a team of 20 national and local bridge inspectors completed their work, Kentucky officials began planning the repair process. That's where Kokosing Construction – now one of the largest family-owned construction companies in the Midwest – came into play.
“We obviously knew about the incident the bridge, which made it unsafe for people to travel," Kokosing Construction President John Householder told Knox Pages this week. "So we actually reached out to ODOT and said, 'If you need assistance, let us know.' "
That was on Wednesday, just hours after the collision occurred. Three days later, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (which owns the bridge), gave Householder a call.
"We got a call from Kentucky that said, 'Meet us out on the bridge on Saturday at 4 p.m.,' " he recalled with a laugh.
Given the urgency of the project, Kokosing Construction was required to submit a bid on the project less than 48 hours after the meeting. Householder said his team worked diligently through the weekend, day and night, to get it done.
"We got it submitted, and we were low," he said.
The KTC awarded Kokosing Construction the $3.1 million contract that day.
"We had a pre-construction meeting with Kentucky that afternoon at 4 p.m. and had our notice to proceed, and away we went.”
By the end of the day Monday – five days after the collision occurred – Kokosing Construction had equipment on-site. Work began the next day.
"Things moved fast," Householder said.
AHEAD OF SCHEDULE: Initially, Kokosing Construction committed to having the bridge reopened by Dec. 23. But according to Householder, several factors allowed crews to finish the project a day early.
“We were able to come up with a very good team to go down there," he said. "We had some real industry professionals there that know that kind of work, know how to work under a tight time schedule, and we had good suppliers that got materials to us when we needed them."
The repair project included six main components, according to the KTC:
- Replacing 16 steel beams that were damaged by the fire.
- Pouring a new upper-deck driving surface and a concrete barrier wall.
- Pouring a new layer of concrete on the lower deck and a new concrete barrier wall.
- Removing and installing the drainage system.
- Installing new overhead lights.
- Re-striping new concrete on the upper and lower decks.
Kokosing Construction crews began replacing the bridge's upper deck on Nov. 25, and worked ceaselessly over the next four weeks (including on Thanksgiving Day) to complete the project. Householder said between 20 and 25 employees were working on the site each day.
“We worked pretty much every available day that weather would allow us – at night when we had work to do at night … I don’t know if we worked 50 percent of nights, but it was something like that," he said.
“We worked Saturdays, Sundays, it made no difference what day. It was a continuous work schedule. And we knew that going in. When they gave us the set of plans, we were able to build a detailed schedule … and we directed our work accordingly.”
Householder said his team knew the stakes of this project. The Brent Spence Bridge serves as one of the Midwest's key commercial vessels, stringing two major highways across the Ohio River, and its closure impacted hundreds of thousands of vehicles every day.
Given Kokosing's presence in the Midwest now, with offices in four different states, Householder said this project became personal for the company.
"It’s a big deal for our owners, when they have a road shut down. It impacts the entire community. It impacts us as well, and we want to help," he said. "And we happened to have the expertise and equipment to jump in there and do it.
"We have a big presence in Cincinnati, a lot of our team members live down there, and so it was a big deal – having that big bridge shut down for that long was a big deal for that town, and we wanted to get it back open for them as quickly as possible.”
This wasn't the first time Kokosing Construction had completed a major emergency project. According to Householder, the company performed two other similarly urgent projects in 2020: repairing a culvert on State Route 30 near Upper Sandusky, and conducting emergency repairs on the Ohio Turnpike, which runs along the state's northern edge.
"This was our third emergency contract this year, where the owners we work for need us to go out and perform – and perform quickly," Householder said. "We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re pretty good at doing that."
Perform quickly they did. By Dec. 2, Kokosing crews reached the halfway mark in the project, having removed the fire-affected portion of the upper deck of the bridge and installed new steel support beams. By Dec. 10, crews had begun to pour a new layer of concrete on the bridge's upper deck. The following week, they did the same for the lower deck.
Final inspections were completed on Dec. 21, and by late-afternoon Dec. 22, the bridge was reopened to vehicles.
“We are pleased to reopen the Brent Spence Bridge ahead of schedule and return one of the nation’s busiest and most important economic travel corridors to public use,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said in a statement that day.
“I commend the dedicated employees of the Transportation Cabinet for working with deliberate speed and adhering to strict safety guidelines in a time of unprecedented uncertainty in our great state.”
REPUTATION OF RELIABILITY: With 3,500 employees across four Midwestern states, Kokosing Construction takes on dozens of major projects each year. Still, Householder said this project – completing emergency repairs on the Brent Spence Bridge – was unlike any he'd been a part of in his 30 years with the company.
"Brent Spence is a pretty darn important bridge," Householder said. "We haven’t done anything this high-profile before.”
The fact that Kokosing was entrusted with this work, Householder said, shows how far it's come in the last 66 years. What was once a two-man company in Fredericktown has blossomed into a billion-dollar business, working in almost every aspect of construction.
The company has stayed true to its Knox County roots, with the Waterford Road office still serving as its headquarters for maintenance, supply, accounting, IT and human resources (the corporate headquarters is located in Westerville).
More than 300 Knox County residents work for Kokosing Construction, making it one of the county's biggest employers, and the company still gives back to the community through business and philanthropic efforts.
But the company has also spread its wings considerably since it began decades ago. The Burgett family – now three generations deep in leadership – has transformed it into a Midwestern powerhouse. It has earned a reputation of reliability, Householder said, particularly on major emergency projects. This was on full display last month.
“I think we have a very good reputation in the industry as somebody who can go out and perform, and I think we showed that on this project," Householder said. "They needed it done in short order, and we were able to deliver a day early on that.”