State Politics

Top state engineer blames FIU and contractor for road staying open before deadly bridge collapse

The busy highway under Florida International University’s pedestrian bridge, which crumbled in March 2018 and killed six people, should have been closed while crews were trying to repair cracks in a critical support strut, a top engineer with Florida’s Department of Transportation told federal investigators.

In a letter to the National Transportation Safety Board released on Tuesday, Will Watts, the chief engineer for FDOT, wrote that FIU and its contractor were responsible for asking the state to close Tamiami Trail — but never did.

The road should have been “completely closed to traffic if the contractor was undertaking activities that posed a risk to the public,“ Watts wrote. While FDOT supervised the federally funded project and was consulted during design and construction, the state agency has always insisted it played a limited role.

But now, in response to the disaster — and widespread criticism that it failed in its oversight capacity — FDOT said Tuesday it has overhauled its procedures to exert more direct authority over such projects.

“At the core of this issue is sound engineering judgment,’’ Watts wrote, adding that FDOT “employees faced with a situation like the one presented by the FIU bridge would have been expected to take immediate action to close the road.”

The Sept. 20 letter from Watts to the NTSB was among more than 6,300 pages of documents and factual reports released by the federal agency as part of its 18-month investigation into the catastrophic failure of the span across Tamiami Trial. On Oct. 22, the NTSB will hold a probable cause hearing on the collapse and issue final safety recommendations. The meeting will take place in Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, the release of the agency’s investigative docket is allowing several of the major players involved in the accident to say loudly: It wasn’t our fault. It was theirs.

FDOT, design firm FIGG Bridge Engineers and general contractor MCM filed written submissions to the NTSB in which they defended their actions — and assigned blame to others. Under the rules of the NTSB investigation, the parties are not allowed to comment publicly while the probe is ongoing.

FIU and MCM declined to comment about the documents unsealed Tuesday.

“Party members are prohibited from speaking publicly during the course of an NTSB investigation on matters not disclosed by the NTSB,” Maydel Santana, a spokeswoman for FIU, said in a statement. “As there may be matters that the NTSB has not disclosed, FIU, out of respect for the NTSB process, will not comment at this time. The final hearing is not scheduled to occur until Oct. 22, and a final report is expected to be issued shortly thereafter.”

FDOT, which oversaw the doomed project, released a statement describing improvements it had made to how it supervises such construction work, including ensuring “more active Department involvement.” Meanwhile, Tallahassee-based FIGG pushed back against previous federal government reports that determined errors had been made in the bridge’s design. FIGG also unveiled a website called flbridgefacts.com.

The rush of new information comes as victims and their families have reached settlements with the companies behind the bridge.

The March 15, 2018, collapse occurred as a construction crew atop the bridge tightened steel rods inside a critical diagonal support strut at the span’s north end. Cracks had appeared months before the prefabricated 174-foot span was lifted onto pylons on either side of the road. But the cracks grew larger and more alarming after the span was put in place.

During an onsite meeting that morning, FIGG’s chief engineer told representatives from MCM, FDOT, FIU and other companies that the cracks were not a safety concern. Unsuspecting drivers went about their daily commutes as workers mounted the precarious structure.

When the workers tightened steel rods at the weakened node, the strain brought the whole bridge down, independent engineering experts who reviewed the accident have told the Herald.

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Two days before the FIU bridge collapsed, this photo showed a crack along the bottom of diagonal support No. 11. Munilla Construction Management Provided by National Transportation Safety Board

The latest NTSB documents also reveal new details about the injuries inflicted on victims when the bridge suddenly fell from the sky.

Autopsies determined that five people — one worker and four people in their cars — died from blunt force trauma. A sixth victim, 18-year-old FIU student Alexa Duran, died of traumatic asphyxia, according to the medical examiner’s office. Duran was driving an SUV when the bridge collapsed, crushing one side of her vehicle. Her friend, Richard Humble, who was sitting in the passenger seat, survived. The difference between life and death? A matter of inches.

Five construction workers and five people in their cars were injured, some seriously.

In addition to Duran, the five people killed were: Navaro Brown, 37; Brandon Brownfield, 39; Rolando Fraga, 60; Osvaldo González, 57; Alberto Arias, 54.

What caused the collapse and who was responsible for not closing the road are the two biggest issues the NTSB is expected to address at its Oct. 22 meeting.

In a previous investigative update, the NTSB stated that “errors were made in the design of the 174-foot span” and that the cracks were “consistent” with those errors. In June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a report stating that FIGG’s design for the 950-ton bridge was “deficient.”

In a new report included in the released documents, a third agency — the Federal Highway Administration — also points to poor design by FIGG. Additionally, the new report criticizes FIGG’s ill-fated attempt to repair the resulting cracks.

The FHWA report says FIGG “severely” underestimated the forces placed by the bridge’s weight on a critical connection on the span’s north end and consequently did not make it strong enough to stand up. When it came time to address the cracks, the report says, the designer failed to recognize the span was about to fail or take adequate action.

“The tragic end result was the collapse of the bridge,” the report reads.

On Tuesday, FIGG pushed back against those conclusions in a news release, saying the accident was due to a “failure by contractors” to follow design plans. The Tallahassee-based firm said it hired forensic structural engineering experts Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to conduct its own investigation. That analysis concluded that construction joints at the spot where the bridge failed “were not roughened in accordance with state standards.”

Roughening the joint at the point where two structural pieces met would have significantly strengthened the connection, the analysis said.

“The events of March 15, 2018, were, by any measure, a tragedy. However, contrary to incomplete prior accident updates, the design of the [bridge] was neither the proximate cause, nor a contributing cause, of the construction accident,” FIGG said in its 344-page submission to the NTSB. “If, however, the various parties constructing the bridge, inspecting the construction, or moving the bridge into position, fail to comply with (plans, specifications, and requirements), then even a safe design will be compromised.”

A report produced by the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center for the Federal Highway Administration — and included in the documents released Tuesday — also concluded that a portion of the joint was “not intentionally roughened.” But the FHWA report does not state the lack of roughening caused the collapse.

For its part, general contractor MCM blamed FIGG for “serious errors and omissions” in its original design calculation and drawings for the bridge. MCM also accused FIGG of lacking “proper understanding” of the causes for the cracks; selecting an incorrect repair of the cracking; and failing to appreciate and warn of the dangers posed by the cracking.

MCM blamed FIGG’s “repeated” verbal and written assurances that there were no safety concerns for the decision by FDOT and FIU not to close Tamiami Trail to live traffic.

MCM also faulted the FDOT for not recognizing design errors in FIGG’s drawings and accused the consulting firm Louis Berger of not conducting an adequate independent peer review of FIGG’s design and failing to detect its errors.

The documents also illustrate critical breakdowns in communications among contractors and FDOT.

Two days before the collapse, FIGG’s chief engineer, W. Denney Pate, left a message for Tom Andres, the FDOT engineer supervising the project, discussing the cracks.

“Um, so, uh, we’ve taken a look at it,” Pate said, “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. At any rate, I wanted to chat with you about that because I suspect at some point that’s gonna get to your desk. So, uh, at any rate, call me back when you can.”

Andres told investigators he was out of the office on assignment and did not listen to the message until after the fatal accident.

At the time, then-Gov. Rick Scott was engaged in a competitive race for a Senate seat with Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson — and downplayed the state’s role.

“It’s not an FDOT project. It’s an FIU project,” Scott said during a news conference at the university the night the bridge fell.

But reporting by the Miami Herald and NBC6 showed that FDOT engineers and consultants were involved in frequent meetings with the FIU team, giving suggestions on everything from design calculations to the proper concrete mix.

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A measuring stick shows the depth of a crack in the deck of the doomed FIU bridge. This photo was dated March 13, 2018, two days before the bridge collapsed, killing six. Munilla Construction Management Provided by National Transportation Safety Board

Coinciding with the release of the federal investigative reports, FDOT on Tuesday issued a statement announcing that it has implemented stricter review and approval procedures of federally funded road construction projects built by local agencies, like FIU.

Among the most significant changes: FDOT now requires local agencies, their design professionals and contractors to immediately close state highway system facilities, such as roads, bridges and overpasses, “when circumstances present material risks to the traveling public.” On more complex projects, such as the FIU pedestrian bridge, an FDOT manager will be assigned to focus exclusively on those projects to increase the department’s involvement and ensure better communications between project consultants and FDOT.

Any questions regarding road closures must be “immediately brought to the attention of appropriate Department employees.”

OSHA’s 115-page report, released in June, unequivocally stated the roadway under the bridge should have been closed after the discovery of the cracks.

In interviews with the NTSB, FDOT officials took particular aim at the engineering firm that FIU hired to oversee the project, Bolton Perez & Associates.

In a March interview with investigators, Andres and fellow FDOT engineer Robert Robertson, who review bridge plans for the agency, said Bolton Perez should have warned them that cracks in the bridge were growing larger and that FIGG was planning to repair them by doing something that had never been contemplated in the bridge construction plans — to re-tighten steel supports inside a key diagonal support strut.

Bolton Perez did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Bolton Perez representatives sat in a meeting the morning of the collapse at which FIGG described what it intended to do. They should have stopped the work and warned FDOT because the work was outside the scope of anything the agency had reviewed, Robertson and Andres said in the NTSB interviews.

Bolton, which had been documenting the cracks and sending reports to builder MCM, had the authority to stop work and ask FDOT to close the road that day, they said.

“Those are the only eyes that the department would have out there representing us. So we would rely on the CEI (Bolton Perez) to say we’ve got something really unusual and they need assistance or that they’re taking unilateral action on their own due to the severity as they see it,” Andres said.

Typically, Andres said, an engineering firm overseeing an FDOT project would have the authority to stop work or stop traffic.

In their own interviews, Bolton Perez engineers say FIGG did not tell them or consult them in advance on what it planned to do. They only learned of it at the morning meeting. They said they had done their job in documenting the cracks and sending reports to MCM to take up with FIGG.

A Bolton Perez engineer and an inspector who were on the span observing the tensioning work were seriously injured when it collapsed under them, the NTSB documents show. The records do not name them.

Rene Rodriguez has worked at the Miami Herald in a variety of roles since 1989. He currently writes for the business desk covering real estate and the city’s affordability crisis.
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