‘Screaming something was wrong’: Feds fault FIU, state and contractors for deadly bridge collapse

During a hearing Tuesday on last year’s deadly Florida International University pedestrian footbridge collapse, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the bridge’s “catastrophic failure” stemmed from a flawed design with “significant errors.”

All of the major parties involved in the project — from the university to the Florida Department of Transportation and the project’s engineers and contractors — came in for harsh criticism during the public hearing, something they have largely avoided as the NTSB conducted a closed-doors investigation over the past 19 months while victims and their families demanded answers.

The NTSB determined that FIU, FDOT, as well as the project’s design-build team and inspectors failed to exercise independent judgment, or even common sense, in leaving the busy road underneath the bridge open while a construction crew performed emergency work. Six people died on March 15, 2018, when the 950-ton span collapsed onto cars idling on Tamiami Trail. Ten people were injured.

Before the collapse, “abnormal” cracks had been growing and spreading throughout a crucial support junction at the span’s north end, left critically weakened by a major design error, NTSB investigators told the board at a hearing in Washington, D.C. But no one acted to close down the road.

The cracks were “screaming that there was something definitely wrong with this bridge and yet no one was listening,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.

The unique concrete truss bridge was designed by Tallahassee-based FIGG Bridge Engineers. The firm’s engineering design work was repeatedly criticized at the hearing. So was FIGG’s failure to realize its non-redundant design was failing in plain sight. FIGG’s errors, Sumwalt noted, would have been caught “before concrete was ever poured” if an adequate peer review of the bridge plans had been performed.

“But another structure failed in this accident: the structure of public safety oversight,” Sumwalt explained. “The oversight structure should have resulted in suspension of work and road closures. It did not. Oversight of the project, like the bridge itself, collapsed.”

And he also noted that FIU, which conceived and oversaw the project, could not escape blame for what happened.

“You can contract out your authority, but you can’t contract out your responsibility,” he said.

march 13 bridge crack 2.png
Photographs showing the east interface between truss member 11 and the deck on March 13, 2018, at 1:29 p.m. Federal Highway Administration

The fatal accident remains the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by police and prosecutors in Miami-Dade County.

Orlando Duran — whose 18-year-old daughter, FIU student Alexa Duran, died in the collapse — said he watched the entire hearing, which was streamed online.

“I’m not happy, but I’m satisfied,” Duran said. “I sure hope the State Attorney’s Office is paying attention to see if there’s grounds to take this to the next level in terms of criminal charges.”

He is still waiting to hear from the university his daughter attended.

“FIU never reached out to us to say sorry. To say ‘Is there anything we can do to help out?’ “ Duran said. “My daughter was a student there, she studied political science. Her aspirations were to help the family by becoming a lawyer. That was truncated.”

In its probable cause finding, the NTSB said the collapse was caused by “the load and capacity calculation errors made by FIGG Bridge Engineers, Inc., (FIGG) in its design.” The agency added that an inadequate peer review of the design plans by engineering firm Louis Berger also contributed to the collapse.

The NTSB also cited “the failure of [general contractor] MCM; FIGG; [inspectors] Bolton, Perez & Associates Consulting Engineers; FIU; and the Florida Department of Transportation to cease bridge work when the structure cracking reached unacceptable levels and to take appropriate action to close SW 8th Street as necessary to protect public safety.”

During the hearing, the three board members of the federal investigative agency dismissed several counterclaims from FIGG arguing that the inquiry was flawed and had misidentified the cause of the collapse.

The NTSB — which cannot issue sanctions — released a summary Tuesday afternoon outlining the accident’s “probable cause,” as well as the board’s major findings and safety recommendations. A full report will be released in the next few weeks.

Among the NTSB’s safety recommendations are improved national design guidelines for concrete bridges, including their redundancy; having FDOT revise its processes for independent peer review and making it mandatory for roads to be shut when structural cracks are detected in bridges; and better training for FIGG engineers.

The immediate cause of the 1:47 p.m. collapse was workers tightening, or “retensioning,” internal steel support bars in an attempt to close the cracks, as ordered by FIGG’s top engineer on the project, W. Denney Pate. That operation “push[ed] the concrete beyond its limits ... causing it to fail,” the NTSB said Tuesday. The repair work was not called for in the original plans and should have been independently reviewed, according to the NTSB.

“Staff concluded that retensioning ... was a change to the design plans that should have been reviewed, signed and sealed by a professional engineer, none of which were done,” said Steven Prouty, senior highway engineer in the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.

Prouty said any of the five major parties behind the bridge could have called for the road to be shut down while the emergency work was taking place.

“None of them acted on that authority,” he said.

Before the collapse, Pate, FIGG’s chief engineer, insisted to other engineers and contractors that the cracks did not pose a safety threat, even though he and his team told investigators they did not understand why the cracks were forming.

Bruce Landsberg, the board’s vice chairman, called the accident “astounding.”

“FIGG has been very experienced and they’ve been building bridges for decades and I’m amazed this situation could happen,” he said during the hearing

Serious cracks had started opening in the bridge weeks before the collapse — the result of FIGG’s design error that left the span drastically underdesigned for the load it was supposed to bear. While cracking in concrete is not uncommon, the cracks growing through the FIU bridge were “40 times larger than what is typically considered acceptable,” the NTSB said Tuesday.

But no one overseeing the project seemed to believe they were a safety threat or even discussed closing the road.

march 15 bridge crack.jpg
Photograph showing the west face of truss member 11 where it met the deck on March 15, 2018, at 10:55 a.m. Federal Highway Administration

FIU President Mark Rosenberg attended the hearing and expressed condolences to the victims and their families in an interview with the Miami Herald.

“FIU was continually and repeatedly told that the cracks were not as serious and what you heard today was they indeed were very serious,” Rosenberg said. “We followed state of Florida regulations all the way. That’s why so many of the recommendations as you heard related to how in the future these kinds of projects are supposed to be governed.”

Rosenberg said FIU was following the advice of its construction partners on its decision not to shut down Southwest Eighth Street.

“We were told twice that morning by the engineer that there were no safety concerns,” Rosenberg said.

He also said the university intends to build a new bridge between Sweetwater and the campus.

“We have to figure out a way to get that bridge rebuilt,” Rosenberg said. “We will rebuild that bridge. We are committed to that bridge, that bridge will be there and we will memorialize those who were lost because we feel very deeply about that.”

Florida Republican Rick Scott, who was governor at the time of the collapse and distanced FDOT from the project, did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

‘Shocking and disappointing’

The main entities behind the project have largely stayed silent since the accident, citing the NTSB’s policy that no one should release information during an investigation.

At the same time, it appears they tried to pressure the NTSB to delay the release of the agency’s investigative docket, consisting of about 6,000 pages of investigative interview transcripts, reports and assessments.

On Oct. 5, FIU and other team members sent the agency a letter asking that the release be delayed until Oct. 21. The letter said unsealing the documents prematurely could prolong litigation with victims and even “reduce” the compensation they receive.

“Opening the public docket while this is occurring may have negative consequences in connection with achieving a full and final settlement,” according to a copy of the letter released by the NTSB on Tuesday.

The NTSB rejected the request and released the documents on Oct. 8. Board member Jennifer Homendy called the letter “totally inappropriate.”

“I find this shocking and disappointing,” she said during Tuesday’s hearing.

The letter was signed by Kenneth Jessell, FIU’s chief financial officer; Juan Munilla of MCM; Joaquin Perez, principal at Bolton Perez; John Crigler of subcontractor Structural Technologies; and Alan Phipps of FIGG.

For its part, FIGG has claimed that a construction error, not a design mistake, led to the accident, although three federal agencies have now disagreed with that assessment. On Tuesday the NTSB said that while the construction error, which involved failing to “roughen” concrete at the crucial joint, did occur, it did not cause the collapse. The NTSB also described FIGG’s construction plans for the roughening as “inconsistent.”

FIGG hired its own forensic engineers who disputed the government’s findings.

“The investigation into the FIU pedestrian bridge construction accident presented challenges for the agency to accurately understand all of the technical and factual components,” FIGG said in a statement Tuesday. “The accident was the result of a complex series of events and failings by parties at multiple stages of the project.”

download (4_fitted.jpeg
Alexa Duran, an FIU student, died under a cascade of concrete when the bridge on Southwest Eighth Avenue collapsed. Courtesy of the family

Sumwalt, the board chairman, countered FIGG’s assertions that the NTSB investigaton was flawed or incomplete. “We’re the only organization involved that doesn’t have a dog in the fight,” he said. “Our purpose is to find out what happened so we can keep it from happening again.”

“I’ve been on this board for 13 years and I don’t think I’ve seen [an accident] where there’s more finger-pointing between the parties,” Sumwalt added. “And, you know, the finger-pointing is correct ... because everyone shares a piece of this accident.”

Meanwhile, the NTSB also faulted the state’s lack of oversight.

“Because the pedestrian bridge was a unique and complex design, Florida DOT should have provided more oversight as the supervising agency for this project, ensuring that it was designed and constructed according to specifications,” said Prouty, the NTSB’s senior highway engineer. “This distress in structural cracking was documented by FIU, FIGG, MCM, Bolton Perez and Florida DOT. None of these parties took the responsibility for declaring the cracks were beyond any level of acceptability and did not meet Florida DOT standards.”

Robert Accetta, the NTSB’s investigator-in-charge, said FDOT must “take a greater role in responsibility of the design phases and the construction phases.”

FDOT has acknowledged the road should have been closed and says it has made changes that will bring closer state scrutiny to such projects.

“The events surrounding the FIU bridge collapse are absolutely heartbreaking for both the families and loved ones of the victims, but also for the community and state,” FDOT Secretary Kevin J. Thibault said in a statement on Tuesday. “The department has ... already implemented many of the improvements discussed today. I remain committed to ensuring that all NTSB recommendations are followed so a tragedy like this never happens again in Florida.”

Another entity that came in for criticism at Tuesday’s hearing was Louis Berger, the engineering firm hired by FIGG to independently review FIGG’s design. FIGG had originally wanted to do the “independent review” itself, something rejected by FDOT. FIGG then turned to Berger, which was not qualified under state rules to perform such review work on a complex concrete bridge, the NTSB found. Somehow, no one objected.

“FIGG’s failure to adhere to the Florida DOT’s requirements in initially contracting for an independent peer review firm and Louis Berger’s inadequate peer review resulted in significant errors in FIGG’s design [going] undetected,” said Dan Walsh, a senior highway accident investigator at the NTSB. “This underdesign led to the bridge’s structural failure and collapse.”

Walsh also pointed out that FIGG’s design was not redundant — meaning if one element like the weakened structural connection failed, the whole bridge would come down.

Sumwalt said the bridge’s failure can be summarized in three parts.

First, FIGG’s design of the bridge underestimated the demands placed on the structure and overestimated its strength. Second, the peer review conducted by Louis Berger was inadequate. And third, none of the parties involved in the bridge’s construction with the power to close the road recognized the seriousness of the errors.

“A very complex situation, but it really boils down to those three points,” Sumwalt said.

march 14 bridge crack.jpg
Photograph showing the west face of truss member 11 where it meets the deck on March 14, 2018, at 1:45 p.m. Federal Highway Administration

Linwood Howell, an Austin-based engineer who is contracted to inspect bridges for the state of Texas and reviewed the FIU bridge plans for the Herald, said the design process “was a total failure across the board.”

“Peer review is not just a formality,” Howell said. “You have to have qualified people to exercise independent judgment about the claims being made on a structural design. That didn’t happen at all. It was groupthink.”

General contractor MCM — Munilla Construction Management — filed for bankruptcy after the accident, although the firm, which has strong political connections to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, has continued to win county work.

“The MCM Family is heartbroken for those who were affected by the failure of the FIU pedestrian bridge. Throughout this very difficult time, our MCM family has prayed for the families who lost loved ones and everyone involved,” the firm said in a statement. “We are a family-owned and operated company with a 35-year history. This is the first time in our over three decades of operation that we have ever experienced anything like this tragic accident. We will continue to work closely with all parties to resolve ongoing legal and financial issues in an expeditious manner.”

goldfarb duran.jpg
Alan Goldfarb, left, and Orlando Duran spoke with reporters in Miami following a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on Wednesday, Oct. 22. Goldfarb is representing the Duran family, who lost their daughter Alexa in the collapse. Monique Madan Miami Herald

Victims and their families have largely settled the lawsuits filed after the accident. Now, their attention is turning to whether Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle plans to file criminal charges. The NTSB ruling may shed light on whether the project team’s decision to treat the cracks as minor crossed the line into criminal negligence.

Bringing a criminal case against contractors in a construction accident is difficult under Florida law. Fernández Rundle faced criticism for saying the day after the collapse, before any significant evidence had been gathered, that she saw criminal charges as ”improbable.”

The criminal investigation into the deaths at the bridge remains open, said a spokesman at the State Attorney’s Office.

“As the NTSB board of directors have publicly adopted their final report, this will release thousands of pages of documents to the prosecutors involved in the ongoing criminal investigation of the bridge collapse,” spokesman Ed Griffith said in a statement. “Such a treasure-trove of information may provide additional insights and evidence to those who have long labored to fully understand this tragic incident.“

Stuart Grossman, an attorney representing two injured victims, said that “we stand ready, willing and able to assist any agency whatsoever that wants to press charges.”

“My clients want justice,” said Grossman, who represents survivors Richard Humble, a passenger in Alexa Duran’s vehicle, and Kevin Hanson, a construction worker who suffered severe brain damage. “There were dead and injured people and lives that are forever changed for simply driving down the road. This isn’t just a tragedy, it’s a scandal. It’s the kind of stuff that horror films are made of.”

Miami Herald staff writers David Ovalle and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.
Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.
Andres Viglucci covers urban affairs for the Miami Herald. He joined the Herald in 1983.