Florida bridge engineer warned of cracks but message went unheard

In the "interest of full transparency", the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) revealed last night that the lead engineer on the bridge that collapsed Thursday (15 March), killing at least six people in Miami, had warned of cracks on the north end of the span two days before the collapse, but his voicemail was not heard by the intended FDOT employee at the time, and was only heard yesterday after the collapse.

The man who left the message on Tuesday (13 March) – W. Denney Pate of the bridge’s designer, FIGG Bridge Engineers – said the cracking was "not good" and that something would have to be done about it, but said it did not present an immediate safety issue.

The intended recipient of the message, addressed as "Tom", was out of the office on assignment and only heard the message when he was back in his office yesterday, FDOT said.

Installed only five days prior to the collapse by an "Accelerated Bridge Construction" (ABC) method, the bridge was an object of pride for Florida International University (FIU), which advanced and promoted the ABC method, but it became a hallmark of tragedy when the 174-foot, 950-ton span fell onto the busy eight-lane thoroughfare, killing six people in cars and injuring nine.

FDOT released a transcript of the voicemail, which reads as follows:

"Hey Tom, this is Denney Pate with FIGG bridge engineers. Calling to, uh, share with you some information about the FIU pedestrian bridge and some cracking that’s been observed on the north end of the span, the pylon end of that span we moved this weekend. 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 although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that. At any rate, I wanted to chat with you about that because I suspect at some point that’s gonna get to your desk. So, uh, at any rate, call me back when you can. Thank you. Bye."

FDOT made no comment on whether the cracking might have caused the collapse, which is the subject of active investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as well as by local and state law enforcement agencies.

The department further revealed that FIGG’s Mr Pate said nothing about safety issues when he attended a midday meeting on the day of the collapse with an FDOT representative and members of the FIU design-build team responsible for the project.

"The responsibility to identify and address life-safety issues and properly communicate them is the sole responsibility of the FIU design build team," FDOT stated. "At no point during any of the communications above did FIGG or any member of the FIU design build team ever communicate a life-safety issue."

Also yesterday, the National Transportation Safety Board disclosed that construction crews were working on diagonal beams on the north end of the pedestrian bridge when the structure collapsed, CNN reports.

The NTSB investigator in charge, Robert Accetta, said it was too early to tell whether the bridge failed at the point construction workers were applying post-tensioning force to strengthen the beams, said CNN.

When asked about the cracking, Accetta said: "I would have to say that a crack in the bridge does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe."

FIGG Bridge Engineers meanwhile has released a statement on the tragedy, saying the collapse was "an unprecedented event".

"We are stunned by the tragic collapse of a pedestrian bridge that was under construction over Southwest Eighth Street in Miami," the company said. "Our deepest sympathies are with all those affected by this accident. We will fully cooperate with every appropriate authority in reviewing what happened and why. In our 40-year history, nothing like this has ever happened before. Our entire team mourns the loss of life and injuries associated with this devastating tragedy, and our prayers go out to all involved."

It added: "This is an unprecedented event – no other bridge designed by FIGG Bridge Engineers has ever experienced such a collapse. FIGG-designed bridges have proven to be incredibly durable. For example, we have worked on more than 230 bridges throughout the United States and have designed nearly 35 miles of bridges in the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico that have withstood multiple hurricanes."

Image: Workers at the collapsed bridge in Miami during the night of Friday, 16 March 2017 (Miami-Dade Police Department)

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