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2 families suing over 2011 Pittsburgh flash floods, claims 4 deaths could have been prevented

Surviving relatives of four people killed in flash flooding in Pittsburgh in August 2011 are suing several government and private entities claiming the deaths could have been prevented, attorneys for the two affected families announced Friday.

Mary Saflin, 72, of Oakmont, was swept away from her vehicle and down into a sewer conduit where she drowned, and Kimberly Griffith, 45, and her daughters, Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, became trapped in their minivan and also drowned when heavy rains caused a nine-foot wall of water to sweep down a low-lying section of road during afternoon rush hour traffic on Aug. 19, 2011.

Attorneys Alan Perer and Paul Manion have scheduled a Friday morning news conference to announce the lawsuit against the city, its water and sewer authority, Allegheny County and its sewage authority, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, an engineering firm and even Chrysler Group LLC, which made the Griffiths' van.

Those entities didn't immediately return emails and phone messages seeking comment.

"Evidence has emerged that the danger of swift, violent flooding on Washington Boulevard has been known to government officials and their engineering consultants for a very long time and occurred repeatedly," the attorneys said in a news release. "Plans to correct the dangerous situation were drawn up but never implemented."

City, state and county officials have since studied the road an installed an automatic gate system that closes sections of the road in the event of heavy rains. PennDOT has said it spent about $450,000 on the gates.

Sensors will close the gates if a certain amount of water is detected on the road and emergency responders will automatically be alerted. The city has also trained about 1,700 public safety employees in swift-water rescue tactics since the flooding, which witnesses described as chaotic.

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.

Attorney Perer said Chrysler is being sued because the electric windows on the Griffiths' Town and County minivan didn't work under water and the water pressure kept the victims from opening the doors to escape.

"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."