Two days before a pedestrian bridge collapsed at Florida International University and killed at least six people, an engineer from the firm that designed the walkway left a voicemail with state transportation officials warning of cracks in the structure.
State officials released a transcript of a voice mail that W. Denney Pate, an engineer at FIGG Bridge Group responsible for the bridge design, left for a Florida Department of Transportation official on a landline on Tuesday. The bridge collapsed on Thursday.
According to the transcript, Pate said they had observed “some cracking” on the north end of the span.
“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,” Pate said, according to the transcript.
The transportation department said the state official did not hear the message until Friday, the day after the bridge collapsed. In a statement, the department said it was entirely the responsibility of the contractors, designers and Florida International University officials to raise any life-safety issues.
“FIGG and the FIU design build team never alerted FDOT of any life-safety issue regarding the FIU pedestrian bridge prior to collapse,” the statement read.
The university said all parties held a two-hour meeting at 9 a.m. on Thursday inside a construction trailer near the site, just hours before the collapse, to discuss the crack that had formed on the bridge.
“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,” FIU said in a statement.
FIGG Bridge Engineers responded Saturday morning to defend their team’s assessment and ensure that they will continue to work closely with investigators to find out what led to the collapse.
“The evaluation was based on the best available information at that time and indicated there were no safety issues,” the statement read.
Robert Accetta, who is leading the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the collapse, said it was far too early to tell if the cracks identified by the design team factored into the collapse of the bridge.
“A crack in the bridge does not necessarily mean that it’s unsafe,” Accetta said during a Friday night news conference. “That’s still too early in the investigation for us to confirm.”
The NTSB was able to determine that workers had been tightening two wires that held the bridge in place at the time of the collapse. But during a Friday night briefing, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said they need to know much more before they determine what led the bridge, which had just been installed on Saturday, to fail.
When asked why cars were allowed to continue traveling under the 950-ton bridge as the wire-tightening was ongoing, Sumwalt said he was curious about that himself.
“We want to understand what those decisions were and why they were made,” he said.
The Florida Department of Transportation addressed that point Friday, saying it had issued a blanket permit for bridge workers to close up to two lanes of traffic at any time if they deemed it necessary. But, “at no time, from installation until the collapse of the bridge, did FDOT receive a request to close the entire road.”
“Per standard safety procedure, FDOT would issue a permit for partial or full road closure if deemed necessary and requested by the FIU design-build team or FIU contracted construction inspector for structural testing,” the statement read.
An attempt to reach the FIU spokeswoman who has been handling the bridge collapse was not immediately returned Friday night.
The revelation about the cracks came on a frustrating day for relatives who remained unsure the fate of their loved ones.
Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said on Friday that cars remained crushed under the bridge, with bodies still inside, as workers slowly peeled away sections of the bridge. He said they were moving slowly to allow inspectors time to investigate the bridge, and to ensure that the bodies are removed in the most respectful way possible.
“We’re caught in a bad place right now,” Perez said.
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