The Miami Herald is suing the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) over its refusal to release documents that the newspaper says could shed light on the fatal collapse of a pedestrian bridge under construction in Miami.
Yesterday the paper filed suit against FDOT in Tallahassee’s Leon County Circuit Court to compel the release of emails, meeting minutes and other records relating to the bridge’s design and construction.
The Florida International University (FIU) bridge collapsed onto a busy road on 15 March, killing six people. The 174-foot, 950-ton section had been hoisted into place just five days before.
Two days earlier the bridge’s lead engineer had telephoned an FDOT employee to tell him about cracks at the north end of the span, and on the morning of the tragedy FIU held a meeting with its engineers and FDOT to discuss whether the cracks presented a safety risk.
The meeting appeared to conclude that the cracks did not pose an immediate risk.
The Miami Herald has requested records from that meeting, as well as other relevant documents relating to the publicly-funded $14.3m structure.
"These records are critical to helping us understand how this tragedy occurred and what can be done to prevent a similar incident in the future," the Herald’s executive editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez said.
FDOT says it is refusing on the instructions of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a federal agency investigating the collapse. The department says it lost the right to share public records with the media when it agreed on 17 March to be a party to the NTSB investigation.
It says it can release only those records created on or before 19 February, just under a month before the collapse. The significance of that date has not been explained.
NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil told the Herald there was an "investigative need" to prevent evidence from after that date becoming public.
In a statement, Tom Yu, FDOT’s deputy communications director, said it has asked the Florida attorney general’s office for a legal opinion on whether the records should remain confidential. That opinion is pending.
The Herald reports that attorneys for some of the victims and survivors of the accident are also demanding that the records be made public immediately.
Miami attorney Alan Goldfarb, who is representing the family of Alexa Duran, an 18-year-old FIU student killed by the falling bridge, said: "There’s no reason why all the records up until the moment the bridge collapsed should not be released."
The date of 19 February, Goldfarb said, was "arbitrary".
Another attorney, Stuart Grossman, who is representing one of the survivors, said the bridge was "bought and paid for" with public funds, which meant the public has an immediate right to know what went wrong.
Image: Aerial view of the accident site soon after the bridge collapsed (Miami-Dade Police aviation unit via Twitter)