At least 6 dead in pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida college

The death toll rose overnight in the catastrophic collapse of a 950-ton pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami-Dade County, as a search for survivors became a mission to recover bodies, police said before dawn Friday.

At least six people are confirmed dead, Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta told reporters at the scene along a normally busy, eight-lane thoroughfare where the 174-foot-long bridge came down Thursday afternoon.

Five people died at the scene and another person died at the hospital, Zabaleta said.

At least one of the deceased was an FIU student, Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez said during a second press conference Friday morning. Students had been on spring break and the campus was less busy than usual this week.

Authorities withheld victims’ names. The death toll could rise, Zabaleta warned.

“There is the possibility, the sad possibility, that under the concrete there may be additional vehicles.” Zabaleta said.

At least eight vehicles were beneath the broken concrete slabs, officials have said.

Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said for the time being, they would not provide information about casualties.

“We’re not going to talk numbers anymore,” Perez said about updating tallies of the injured and the dead. “We expect to find other individuals down there. So what’s probably best is we wait to find all the vehicles and we’ll give you a grand total of the fatalities and the magnitude of this event.”

The bridge was put in place Saturday and was to be completed in 2019. It crossed Southwest Eighth Street and was intended to be a safe passageway for students and connect the school’s campus to the city of Sweetwater to the north.

State and federal investigators began Friday to figure out why the span failed.

“The people of South Florida have been through a lot, obviously, over the last several weeks, ” National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt III said Friday, referring to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, when 17 were killed and 17 wounded. “And this is just yet one more tragedy to add to that sad book.”

A “go team” of specialists, including experts in civil engineering and materials science from NTSB will study the failed project. He expects the team to work on the scene for five to seven days.

“Our entire purpose is to find out what happened so we can keep it from happening again,” Sumwalt said.

Authorities declined to address reports about whether the bridge had undergone testing before the Thursday afternoon collapse.

“Those are answers we’re looking for was well,” said Perez, the county police director. He added that the entire project, from contract to catastrophe, will be reviewed and will go no long after the broken concrete and victims are removed.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio had tweeted Thursday night, “The cables that suspend the #Miami bridge had loosened & the engineering firm ordered that they be tightened. They were being tightened when it collapsed today.”

Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp said, “We have not confirmed that there was a stress test. The key here is not to jump to conclusions, not to speak on speculations, but to work on fact. And that’s what we plan to do.”

Steps taken Friday will include moving in heavy equipment to break the largest, still solid piece of concrete and remove it so victims can be recovered, what Perez called a “tedious process. Our goal is to get everything removed so we can get to those victims.”

Firefighters got the call for help at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Search and rescue crews worked into the night to try to find survivors.

The $14.2 million bridge, which FIU said “swung into place” on Saturday, had not yet opened to the public.

Gov. Rick Scott and Rubio flew to Miami Thursday night and while speaking from the college campus, pledged to figure out what led to the collapse.

“There will clearly be an investigation to find out exactly what happened and why this happened and we will hold anybody accountable if anybody has done anything wrong,” Scott said Thursday. “But the most important thing we can do right now is pray for the individuals that ended up in the hospital, for their full recovery, and pray for the family members that have lost loved ones.”

Rubio, who has taught at the university as an adjunct professor for the last decade, said the bridge was built as a safety feature after a student was killed while crossing the busy street there last year.

“It was also going to be a signature project, one that people would identify with the school and this community, and one of a kind in terms of its engineering design,” Rubio said. “To see it on the ground there today and underneath it those who lost their lives as a result of this and those who have been injured, it’s just so tragic.

“There will be an exhaustive review that will get details on an engineering and scientific level as to what the errors were and what led to this catastrophic collapse, of that you can rest assured … The public deserves to know and the families of those who have been hurt and lost their lives deserve to know what went wrong.”

It was unknown how long the investigations and reviews could take.

Photographs from the scene showed a partially crushed cranberry-colored sedan, its rear end trapped beneath the rubble, its front end free from debris. The grilles of two other vehicles could be seen beneath the edge of a concrete slab.

Television news reports showed several patients being put into ambulances; nine people were pulled from wrecked bridge, officials said.

More than 100 county search and rescue workers rushed to the emergency. With the aid of special microphones and rescue dogs, they sought survivors, officials said.

“We are shocked and saddened about the tragic events unfolding at the FIU-Sweetwater pedestrian bridge,’ FIU said in a press release.

The span, called the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge, was built by MCM and designed by FIGG Bridge Engineers, according to FIU. Bolton Perez and Associates were the construction engineering inspectors, according to the state.

FIGG Bridge Engineers said in a press release that they were “stunned by today’s tragic collapse” and that “nothing like this” has happened in its 40-year history.

“Our deepest sympathies are with all those affected by this accident,” the release said. “Our entire team mourns the loss of life and injuries associated with this devastating tragedy, and our prayers go out to all involved.”

MCM, a family business also known as Munilla Construction, tweeted: “Our family’s thoughts and prayers go to out to everyone affected by this terrible tragedy ... We are all devastated and doing everything we can to assist.”

Records show Munilla Construction Management LLC was sued earlier this month in Miami-Dade Circuit Court for alleged shoddy construction of a “makeshift bridge” it built at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Concourse G in Terminal 4.

Jose Perez sued the general contractor after he fell when the bridge “broke under the weight of the plaintiff, causing him to slip forward, fall to the floor, striking his elbow, shoulder, knees, back and wrists,” according to the suit, which was filed March 5.

Perez was reportedly a TSA agent. The construction company “improperly allowed [the bridge] to deteriorate to the point of total failure,” the lawsuit alleged.

Construction of the FIU-Sweewater UniversityCity Bridge began in spring 2017 and was expected to last until next year.

U.S. Congressman Carlos Curbelo who represents the area said he was “extremely disconcerted” by the collapse.

“As soon as the immediate needs have been met, we need to get to the bottom of what happened today and ensure that it never happens again,” he said.

The bridge had received a federal TIGER grant in 2013, according to the FIU report.

Five years ago, another South Florida college campus endured a tragic construction accident. A parking garage under construction on the Doral campus of Miami-Dade College collapsed in October, 2012, killing at least three workers and injuring seven, ABC News reported.

Staff writers Brett Clarkson, Aric Chokey and Anthony Man contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette
88°