By Nicholas Nehamas, Andres Viglucci And Monique O. Madan
Cracks that appeared in the Florida International University bridge days before it collapsed were far more extensive than previously disclosed, according to photographs included in a preliminary report issued Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The photos show four alarming-looking cracks -- one at least 3 1/2 inches deep into the bridge's deck -- developing in precisely the section of the span that is believed to have failed on March 15, killing five motorists and one worker.
Given the size of the cracks, the photos raise new questions about why officials at FIU, the Florida Department of Transportation and the private contractors running the project did not seek to shut down the busy road underneath the bridge.
The cracking appears far wider and more severe than smaller cracks that appeared in the bridge before it was lifted into place above Tamiami Trail on March 10, according to Linwood Howell, a Texas-based bridge engineer not affiliated with the project who has studied its plans and construction since the collapse.
"Those first cracks were disturbing enough," Howell said. "These are much more major. I'm shocked looking at this stuff. ... The bridge is clearly failing."
While it drew no conclusions as to the cause of the collapse, the six-page report from the NTSB, a federal agency investigating the tragedy, did not find problems in the concrete and steel bars used in the bridge. That would seem to lessen the possibility of construction errors causing the disaster, and suggest a design mistake may have occurred, as the Miami Herald reported earlier this summer. The $14.3 million bridge was meant to serve as a testament to FIU's ambitious plans for growth and a way to connect it to the neighboring city of Sweetwater, where many students live. But experts told the Herald an unusual design -- focused on soaring aesthetics -- may have led to a fatal error in its structural calculations, leading to the collapse.
The families of several victims have already filed lawsuits against FIU and the bridge's design and construction team.
Although the bridge's designers, FIGG Bridge Group, were aware of the cracks, they did not consider them a safety threat, according to a voice message one of FIGG's engineers left with FDOT on March 13, two days before the collapse.
"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," the engineer, W. Denney Pate, said, "although obviously the cracking is not good and something's going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that."
The photographs released Thursday were taken on the same day as Pate's message or a day later.
On the morning the bridge collapsed, FIGG and the bridge's construction firm, Munilla Construction Management, met with FIU and FDOT officials for two hours to discuss the cracking, according to FIU. The road wasn't closed. Workers then began re-tensioning the bridge -- a process that involves tightening internal supports rods. Although it is unclear what they were hoping to accomplish, experts say they may have been trying to close up the cracks. The bridge came down while they were working.
"If they would have done their due diligence in closing that road, this could have been avoided," said Orlando Duran, the father of FIU student Alexa Duran, who was killed in the collapse. "At that point, so what if the bridge collapses? There would have been nobody under it -- like my daughter and many others. And sure it would have had to be rebuilt, but who cares? That would have been a good thing."
FDOT has said it was not told about "life-safety issues" and did not hear Pate's message until days later. As Gov. Rick Scott runs for U.S. Senate, FDOT has consistently distanced itself from the failed project, although it in fact played a key role.
Ed Seifert, a spokesman for FDOT, said Thursday that department employees did not see photos of the cracks "until after the collapse" and that the FDOT consultant who attended the meeting was an administrator, not an engineer.
Under Florida's public records law, the Miami Herald has requested minutes and other public records from that meeting, but FDOT denied the request. The Herald is now suing FDOT to compel the release of the documents. The NTSB has said it opposes the documents becoming public before its final report is published and has instructed FDOT not to grant the Herald's request.
Independent experts consulted by the Herald said the bridge had a key design mistake that left a crucial support structure on its north side under-designed. Worrisome cracks were found in that area 10 days before the bridge was lifted into place. That should have alerted designers that the bridge was in trouble and that the work should be stopped and reviewed, the experts said.
The new cracks developed in the same place, a critical diagonal truss strut known as No. 11.
"The cracks show that the bridge could fail at any minute," said Howell, the bridge engineering expert. "They should have immediately shored it up. For a structural engineer to look at this and say it is not a safety hazard, that's insane."
Alan Goldfarb, a lawyer representing the Duran family, said the photos were more evidence of negligence by FIU and its contractors.
"Everybody that was working on and around these areas could not have missed these cracks," Goldfarb said. "They had a duty to stop this project and certainly never allow traffic to flow underneath the bridge in this condition."
In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for FIU wrote: "We are cooperating and assisting authorities fully in an effort to understand what happened."
A spokesman for FIGG declined to comment. The NTSB has asked the parties responsible for building the bridge not to talk in detail about the collapse.
The NTSB report says testing of bridge pieces, including concrete and steel support bars, so far has uncovered no "notable materials issues."
The update also suggests that steel structural supports in a critical concrete brace where experts believe the bridge came apart were installed as designed. NTSB investigators have completed most interviews of engineers, contractors and FDOT officials. The agency expects to complete interviews "in early August," but does not specify when a final report would be issued. Experts say such investigations can take a year or more.
This is the second NTSB update that zeroes in on the same connection of the No. 11 strut to the deck.
An earlier report included photos of mostly hairline cracks in the No. 11 strut and adjacent portions of the bridge while the 174-foot span was still on the ground by the side of the Tamiami Trail where it was fabricated.
This time, the NTSB released photos of far larger cracks on the No. 11 piece that were taken three or four days after the bridge was lifted into place. The report offers no conclusions about the cracks.
"I sure as hell await the NTSB's conclusions," said Stuart Grossman, a lawyer for survivor Richard Humble. "It looks like they uncovered significant materials to analyze, and it looks to me like the cracks are deadly."
The bridge was built on the side of Tamiami Trail and then lifted into place, a process known as accelerated bridge construction, although that doesn't seem to have played a role in the collapse.
According to the update, NTSB investigators also cut open and tested several pieces of the bridge. They concluded the concrete appeared "sound" and that steel bars inside the concrete brace seemed installed according to the bridge blueprints.
The report does not reach any further conclusions, but that might reduce the possibility of construction error as a cause of the collapse.
Investigators also tested the post-tensioning jack system that was being used on the No. 11 truss member by crews when the bridge collapsed. The report does not disclose the results of those tests.
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