Design Flaw Said to Have Caused Minn. Bridge to Collapse

Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; Page A03

A design flaw caused a Minnesota bridge to collapse last summer, killing 13 people and injuring 100 in an accident that focused renewed attention on the safety of the nation's highways and bridges, according to federal sources familiar with the investigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to announce today that investigators have traced the failure to steel structures known as gusset plates that held together beams on the Minneapolis bridge, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the board's findings.

Some gusset plates on the bridge, which carried eight-lane Interstate 35W across the Mississippi River, snapped during evening rush hour on Aug. 1, leading the bridge to crumple, according to the sources.

Gusset plates are common on steel bridges across the nation, including in the Washington area. They hold together angled beams on the bridge's frame.

The sources said the fault in the Minneapolis span stemmed from the bridge's design and would not have been discovered during detailed state inspections.

When the bridge was built in the 1960s, its gusset plates were not thick nor strong enough to meet safety margins of the era, the sources said. Over decades, renovations added weight to the span. It was undergoing a construction project with heavy equipment and material at the time of the collapse.

The sources said investigators were not sure what role those projects played in the incident. But investigators have speculated that the weight from equipment and materials may have triggered the plates' failure, two of the sources said.

During the construction projects, the sources said, state officials and contractors did not recalculate how extra weight might affect the gusset plates. They said it was not standard procedure to do such studies.

The NTSB has not uncovered similar flaws in other bridges, the sources said.

The safety board is expected to recommend at a news conference today that federal and state authorities conduct more rigorous engineering studies of gusset plates before beginning renovation projects on bridges in the future, the sources said.

An NTSB spokesman said investigators could not comment on any recommendations or findings until they are publicly released.

A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Transportation officials in the Washington region said they would wait to read the precise wording of the NTSB's recommendations before conducting additional inspections or analysis.

Kathleen Penney, chief engineer for the D.C. Department of Transportation, said officials conduct detailed studies of bridges before renovating, and that gusset plates are looked at as part of the overall structural design.

A Maryland highway official declined to comment on the impact of the findings until authorities can review today's announcement.

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