TALLAHASSEE — Two days before the catastrophic collapse of a newly-built Florida International University pedestrian bridge that claimed the lives of at least six people, the lead engineer on the project called state transportation officials to warn of cracks in the massive structure.
“Hey Tom, this is Denney Pate with FIGG bridge engineers. Calling to, uh, share with you some 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,” Pate, the lead engineer for Tallahassee-based FIGG, the designer of the bridge, told a Florida Department of Transportation official. The transcript of the voicemail message left on Tuesday with the FDOT official was made public Friday night by state agency officials.
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“Although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that,” continued Pate.
Two days later, the bridge collapsed, killing at least six people, according to authorities, who on Friday night identified the first victim as Alexa Duran, an 18-year-old FIU freshman. Several vehicles remain buried under the rubble.
In its detailed statement, FDOT said the call from Pate came into the landline of an FDOT employee who was “out of the office on assignment.” That employee did not hear the voicemail until Friday, the day after the collapse.
At a news conference Friday night, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Robert Accetta said it was too early to tell if the crack brought up by the FIGG engineer played a part in the bridge’s collapse. Moments before the bridge fell, workers were tightening cables to an area near the north area of the bridge. Surveillance videos show the north side of the bridge collapsed first, but Accetta said none is enough evidence to draw any conclusions.
“I would have to say a crack in the bridge doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe,” Accetta said. “I know crews were out there applying tension to a member, but I don’t know if that was related to the cracks they discovered.
“We have yet to determine what the failure mechanism is,” he added.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said his investigators had not reviewed nor confirmed the exchange between the FIGG engineer and FDOT. He said NTSB investigators will be on the scene in Miami for up to seven days and will scrutinize how the contractors addressed potential failures.
“We want to look at how the contractor identified the risks associated and how they planned to mitigate those risks,” Sumwalt said.
Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted late Thursday that engineers were tightening cables on the bridge when it fell onto the roadway. He followed it up Friday night with another tweet noting that a video showed “construction crews were working on the diagonal beam at the north end of bridge applying ‘posttensioning force‘ to strengthen it“ moments before the collaps.
FIGG issued a statement shortly after FDOT’s latest update stressing that its evaluation indicated no safety issues.
“The evaluation was based on the best available information at that time and indicated that there were no safety issues,” the statement said. “We will pursue answers to find out what factors led to this tragic situation, but it is important that the agencies responsible for investigating this devastating situation are given the appropriate time in order to accurately identify what factors led to the accident during construction.”
The collapsed 174-foot, 950-ton section of the bridge was lifted from its temporary supports last Saturday and hoisted onto its permanent position over Southwest 8th Street, an eight-lane heavily traveled roadway. The bridge was erected, ironically, to improve safety near the large university of more than 50,000 students. It was not scheduled to open until next year. The installation over the weekend took only a few hours to complete, according to FIU officials.
FIU officials said the bridge was built using “Accelerated Bridge Construction methods,“ which is supposed to reduce “potential risks to workers, commuters and pedestrians and minimizes traffic interruptions.“ The construction methods were being “advanced“ at FIU’s Accelerated Bridge Construction University Transportation Center, according to FIU officials.
Since the bridge’s collapse, which has drawn national media attention, FDOT has sought to distance itself from the catastrophe.
In its statement Friday night, FDOT said FIU did not request the complete closure of Southwest 8th Street, the roadway that runs beneath the bridge. They said FIU only asked for two lanes to be closed.
In a lengthy statement released Thursday night just hours after the bridge‘s collapse, FDOT officials emphasized that it was not an FDOT project but a local one managed by FIU and its hired engineers and designers.
“FIU’s design build team is responsible for the proper and safe completion of this project and compliance with all applicable laws and engineering and construction standards,” said the FDOT statement.