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Feds fault university, Florida agency and contractors for deadly bridge collapse

Alex Daugherty, Nicholas Nehamas and Andres Viglucci, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- During a hearing Tuesday on last year's deadly collapse of the Florida International University pedestrian footbridge, the National Transportation Safety Board heard evidence from its staff engineers and investigators showing that the bridge's "catastrophic failure" stemmed from a flawed design with "significant errors."

In addition, investigators found that the university, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the project's engineers and contractors 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.

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 an ongoing hearing in Washington Tuesday morning. 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.

"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."

The bridge was designed by Tallahassee-based FIGG Bridge Designers. The firm's engineering work was repeatedly criticized at the hearing, as was its failure to realize its design was failing in plain sight.

 

The fatal accident remains the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by police and prosecutors in Miami-Dade County. Six people died on March 15, 2018, when the 950-ton span collapsed onto cars idling on Tamiami Trail. Ten others were injured.

The federal investigative agency -- which cannot issue sanctions in its cases -- is expected by the end of the day to release a final report outlining the accident's probable cause, as well as the board's major findings and safety recommendations.

The immediate cause of the collapse came when workers tried to tighten 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 had not been independently reviewed.

"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.

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