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Engineer on Florida bridge project called state two days before deadly collapse to report crack, state says

A lead engineer on a Florida pedestrian bridge project called a state official to report "cracking" two days before the structure collapsed. (Video: Florida Department of Transportation)

A lead engineer responsible for a pedestrian bridge that collapsed near Miami left a voice mail for a state transportation official warning of “some cracking” two days before the structure crashed, state officials said Friday night.

The engineer with the private contractor FIGG Bridge Engineers did not consider it a safety issue, he said in the call. The message was not retrieved until Friday because the Florida Department of Transportation official to whom the voice mail was directed was out of the office on assignment, the state agency said. The message about the bridge being built to connect Florida International University with a neighboring city was left on a land line.

“Hey Tom, this is Denney Pate with FIGG bridge engineers. Calling to, uh, share with you some information about the FIU pedestrian bridge and some cracking that’s been observed on the north end of the span, the pylon end of that span we moved this weekend,” the engineer said, according to a transcript of the call released by the Florida Department of Transportation.

“Um, so, uh, we’ve taken a look at it and, uh, obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done but from a safety perspective we don’t see that there’s any issue there so we’re not concerned about it from that perspective although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that.”

FIGG Bridge Engineers, which designed the span, promised in a statement Friday night it is “carefully examining the steps that our team has taken in the interest of our overarching concern for public safety.”

The company added — in an apparent reference to its engineer’s conclusion that safety was not an issue — that “the evaluation was based on the best available information at that time.”

The company’s statement said employees are “heartbroken by the loss of life” and pledged: “We will pursue answers to find out what factors led to this tragic situation.”

Pate did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Rescue workers began removing cars on March 17 from the scene of a deadly bridge collapse in Miami that killed at least six people. (Video: Reuters)

In its statement, the transportation agency pointed to another potential missed opportunity to identify problems.

On Thursday, shortly before the bridge collapsed, a consultant to the department met with members of the team responsible for the project. There was no mention of safety concerns regarding the structure at that meeting, the state said.

“The responsibility to identify and address life-safety issues and properly communicate them is the sole responsibility of the FIU design build team,” the state transportation agency said. “At no point during any of the communications above did FIGG or any member of the FIU design build team ever communicate a life-safety issue.”

The university later added a more detailed recollection of the Thursday meeting. It was convened by FIGG and Munilla Construction Management (MCM), which built the bridge, “to discuss a crack that appeared on the structure,” the university said.

“The FIGG engineer of record delivered a technical presentation regarding the crack and concluded that there were no safety concerns and the crack did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge,” the university said in a statement, adding that representatives of the school and the state Department of Transportation attended the session, which lasted two hours.

The transportation agency said it released the voice-mail recording in the service of “full transparency.”

Asked what prompted the disclosure, an official pointed to a statement that accompanied the call transcript: “As FDOT assists in these investigations, we will continue our internal review and release all pertinent information as quickly as possible while ensuring its accuracy.”

Earlier Friday, authorities had made a grim announcement: The death toll in the bridge collapse had climbed to six — and more victims may be buried in the rubble.

“Our first priority is getting to those victims,” Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said Friday morning. But, he added, it is a slow and painstaking process to break the debris into smaller pieces for removal, and to reach the vehicles that were crushed when the 960-ton span collapsed Thursday afternoon.

The foot bridge was still being installed when it came crashing down. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said suspension cables on the bridge “were being tightened when it collapsed.”

Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez said Friday that one of the victims in the accident was an FIU student. “We are truly saddened to hear that,” Lopez told reporters at a news conference.

An Ecuadorian official, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, announced on social media Friday that Alexa Duran, the 18-year-old daughter of an Ecuadorian father, had been killed in the collapse. A friend of Duran told the Miami Herald that the FIU student was the funniest person she knew, someone who always lit up any room.

Krista Schmidt, president of the Student Government Association at FIU, announced there would be a memorial Wednesday.

Perez, the police director, said officials would not speculate about the likely number of fatalities until the recovery process is complete. Authorities want to bring closure to worried family members, he said, but can’t confirm identities of who is underneath the rubble. “We’re caught in a bad place right now,” he said.

Jorge Fraga and his family have been calling hospitals, crying and asking everyone about his uncle, Rolando Fraga Hernandez.

“We don’t know anything,” Fraga said. “We think his car is under the bridge.”

His uncle, a friendly 60-year-old originally from Cuba who had run an import-export business in Miami for many years, had been missing since 1:30 Thursday afternoon. No one could tell them anything. “We don’t know what to think,” Fraga said.

“Our primary focus is to remove all of the cars and all of the victims in a dignified manner and not compromise the investigation in the process,” Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp said Friday. “The investigation is vital because we want to ensure that this type of accident doesn’t happen again locally, or anywhere in this country.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Federal Highway Administration are investigating, as are homicide detectives with the county police department. A team of county prosecutors arrived at the scene Friday, as well. 

The deadliest bridge collapses in U.S. history

A pedestrian bridge still under construction collapsed onto moving traffic in the Miami area on March 15. (Video: Claritza Jimenez, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

The foot bridge, which had been hailed for its innovative construction method, collapsed over a busy road west of Miami, crushing numerous vehicles and leaving rescue workers racing to free victims from chunks of concrete and snapped metal. It had just been put in place across Southwest Eighth Street, on Saturday, and had not opened to pedestrians.

Vehicles were stopped at a red light when the bridge crashed down about 1:30 p.m. It had been designed to make it safer for students to cross the frenetic roadway.

“It was going to be a significant project,” Rubio said Thursday night. “To see it on the ground and underneath it those who died and who were injured is a tragedy.”

The cause of the collapse will be fully investigated, he promised: “The victims and their families deserve to know what went wrong. There will be an extraordinary review into what the errors were and what led to this catastrophic collapse.”

Later, Rubio posted on social media: “The cables that suspend the #Miami bridge had loosened & the engineering firm ordered that they be tightened. They were being tightened when it collapsed today.”

The NTSB had been told construction workers were on the bridge at the time of the collapse, said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

He said his investigative team got to the area near the bridge about 10 p.m. Thursday and stayed until 2 a.m. before returning later Friday morning. They expect to remain for about a week for a detailed probe. They had not yet been able to get close to the scene because of the recovery efforts, Sumwalt said. “Our entire purpose in being here is to find out what happened so we can keep it from happening again.”

By Friday, the rescue operation had become a recovery effort. Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey said that after listening for signs of life and searching visually and with dogs, “we’ve determined that there’s no longer any survivors.”

President Trump responded to “the heartbreaking bridge collapse” Thursday evening with prayers, plus praise for the first responders.

Alexander Concha, 36, and Ivy Polanco, 23, were ready to have lunch Thursday at Panther’s Boulevard Cafe, about a block from the bridge, when they heard sirens wailing and helicopters buzzing.

“Our first reaction was, we hope it’s not the bridge,” Concha said. “On the side where it collapsed, it didn’t seem very secure. It seemed very unsafe.”

The bridge collapsed during Florida International’s spring break.

“It’s very lucky that we are on spring break and that this didn’t happen during rush hour,” said Polanco, an FIU student. “It could have been so much worse.”

Florida International last Saturday had touted the bridge’s “first-of-its kind” construction method, and hailed the permanent installation of the bridge’s main span. It stretched 174 feet and weighed 960 tons, according to an FIU news release, and was built using “accelerated bridge construction” methods that were being worked on at the university.

“This method of construction reduces potential risks to workers, commuters and pedestrians and minimizes traffic interruptions,” the release said.

When the bridge was installed, crews using an automated process lifted the span from its supports, turned it 90 degrees across eight lanes and lowered it in place, the release said. The university said it was the largest pedestrian bridge moved by that method, known as self-propelled modular transportation, in U.S. history.

“This project is an outstanding example of the ABC method,” Atorod Azizinamini, chairman of FIU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, said at the time. “Building the major element of the bridge — its main span superstructure — outside of the traveled way and away from busy Eighth Street is a milestone.”

Last year, the Miami Herald reported that an FIU student was killed while crossing Southwest Eighth Street.

The university, a major state school that has experienced burgeoning enrollment in recent years, had announced Wednesday it would begin issuing fines as part of a pedestrian safety campaign to help protect students walking to campus from Sweetwater and nearby Westchester. The new bridge was scheduled to be completed in early 2019.

“Just last week, we were celebrating the expanse being completed — and now we are here dealing with a tragedy,” Mayor Lopez said Thursday.

MCM is a major South Florida construction firm that has been hired to rebuild expressways, update part of Miami International Airport and construct a new test track for Miami’s Metrorail system.

Increasingly, MCM has also successfully bid on federal contracts, winning almost $130 million in work since 2013. The largest contract is for building a school at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station.

MCM is a major contributor to politicians in Miami-Dade County and has been involved in dozens of lawsuits over the last decade, but often for much smaller issues. This month, the firm was sued for damages when a “makeshift bridge” collapsed under the weight of a security worker using it to access a restroom at Miami airport. The man suffered injuries to his elbow, shoulder and wrist, according to court records.

MCM has up-to-date business licenses and no recent code-enforcement violations reported to state authorities. Recent inspection reports for the site of Thursday’s collapse were not immediately available.

The company could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a statement on its Facebook page, MCM said: “Our family’s thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by this terrible tragedy. The new UniversityCity Bridge, which was under construction, experienced a catastrophic collapse causing injuries and loss of life. MCM is a family business and we are all devastated and doing everything we can to assist. We will conduct a full investigation to determine exactly what went wrong and will cooperate with investigators on scene in every way.”

According to the university, FIGG Bridge Engineers, a division of Tallahassee-based FIGG Engineering Group, designed the walkway.

The firm is behind dozens of iconic suspension, arch and beam bridges across the United States, including the Penobscot Narrows Bridge in Maine and the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge over  Tampa Bay.

FIGG said in a statement Thursday that it was “stunned by today’s tragic collapse of a pedestrian bridge that was under construction over Southwest Eighth Street in Miami. Our deepest sympathies are with all those affected by this accident.

“We will fully cooperate with every appropriate authority in reviewing what happened and why. In our 40-year history, nothing like this has ever happened before. Our entire team mourns the loss of life and injuries associated with this devastating tragedy, and our prayers go out to all involved.”

Asked whether the construction methods might have factored into the collapse, Ron Sachs, a spokesman for FIGG Engineering, said he could not provide any details beyond a statement issued by the company.

“They’re in a fact-finding mode,” he said of the company. “They’re stunned and certainly in mourning.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) had touted the bridge as a “creative solution” for challenges to the area’s transportation network in the FIU news release over the weekend. On Thursday, a statement issued through his office reflected the sudden turn of events.

“I am shocked and horrified by the FIU Pedestrian Bridge collapse. I am praying for the victims and families of this tragedy,” he said. “As the NTSB has announced they will be conducting an investigation, I will fully review their findings so we can address how this happened and how to prevent it from ever happening again.”

Experts say the Accelerated Bridge Construction method involves an integrated system of pieces designed to stand as a complete structure, but they must be supported during construction.

Amjad Aref, a researcher at the University at Buffalo’s Institute of Bridge Engineering, said failures can be catastrophic.

“The loss of stability is a sudden thing; it doesn’t give a warning,” said Aref, whose work involves designing Accelerated Bridge Construction projects.

Aref said the construction method has become popular over the past decade. He would not speculate about the cause of the collapse. In general, he said, the process works this way:

“You bring three pieces, three blocks; each block is really strong and [does] their job, but if they are not connected properly, they might not stand,” he said. “The idea is, in every design, you want to take the load from the superstructure, the bridge surface, all the way to the ground safely.”

A collapse, he said, would indicate “the system was not completely connected or supported.”

A pedestrian bridge that collapsed in the Miami area on March 15 killing at least 6 people was built using accelerated bridge construction methods. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Before the structure is finished, Aref said, crews should ensure that each of its components is secured by cabling or other supporting mechanisms.

He said self-propelled modular transportation, the method of installing the bridge section, is common in Europe. The mechanism would typically involve loading the span onto wheeled heavy machinery that places the main span between the supports, turns and hydraulically lifts it into place.

The bridge was funded through a federal TIGER grant, according to the university, a recession-era program created under the Obama administration that pays for road, rail and other projects.

The role of FIU’s Accelerated Bridge Construction University Transportation Center in its construction was unclear. The lab says on its website that it received federal funding in September 2013 after the U.S. Department of Transportation recognized a joint funding proposal submitted by FIU, Iowa State University and the University of Nevada at Reno. The funding enabled the schools to “dive further into their mission of” researching Accelerated Bridge construction, the site says. The center received a second round of U.S. DOT funding in December 2016, the site says.

The center lays out its mission on the site: “The mission of the ABC-UTC is to reduce the societal costs of bridge construction by reducing the duration of work zones, focusing special attention on preservation, service life, construction costs, education of the profession, and development of a next-generation workforce fully equipped with ABC knowledge,” it says.

Calls to a university number and an email to Azizinamini, director of the bridge center, were not returned Thursday.

Aaron C. Davis, Mark Berman, Alice Crites, Faiz Siddiqui, Magda Jean-Louis and Michael Laris in Washington, and Francisco Alvarado in Miami contributed to this report. 

The scene after a pedestrian bridge collapses at Florida International University

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a collapsed pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in the Miami area. (AP)