0111 GMT July 17, 2019
Homicide detectives opened an investigation on Friday into the collapse of a new footbridge that killed at least six people at Miami’s Florida International University (FIU), as questions began to swirl about the companies behind the structure’s controversial design and construction, The Guardian wrote.
Juan Perez, the director of Miami-Dade police department, said criminal charges were possible once exhaustive inquiries by his detectives and state and federal authorities were complete.
Hours later, the Florida department of transportation (FDOT) revealed that the lead engineer working for one of the companies involved in the bridge construction reported a crack in the structure two days before its collapse. The engineer, W Denney Pate, left a voicemail on the landline of a department employee.
“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,” a transcript of the recording read.
“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.”
The unnamed FDOT employee whose landline the message was left on was said to be out of the office on assignment for three days, and did not hear the message until after the bridge’s collapse.
Meanwhile, teams of rescue workers and engineers with heavy lifting equipment began the slow and dangerous task of lifting the unstable remains of the 950-ton concrete structure from vehicles that were crushed when the bridge came down early on Thursday afternoon.
One of the victims was student Alexa Duran, 18, who was driving her car under the bridge when it fell. “My little girl was trapped in the car and couldn’t get out,” her father, Orlando Duran, told local press. He was on a trip to London when he got the news and said he was dreading the return.
“This is going to be the longest and saddest trip of my life,” he said.
Doctors at the Kendall regional medical center continued to treat 10 trauma patients, two of them in critical condition.
Perez said federal investigators would look into every element of the tragedy. They will examine the innovative “accelerated assembly” technique used by Miami-based Munilla Construction Management (MCM) to piece together the $14.2m single-span bridge on a remote site before it was lifted into place last Saturday.
On Thursday, emergency services had been racing to find survivors in the rubble using hi-tech listening devices, sniffer dogs and search cameras. By Friday, the operation turned from rescue to recovery.
Workers will painstakingly break down the giant chunks of fallen concrete so they can be removed safely.
“Our priority is to get to the victims and recover the people that are below that bridge so their families can have appropriate burials and ceremonies,” Perez said.
The bridge, which was not scheduled to open officially until next year, was meant to improve student safety as they crossed one of the busiest highways in the county from their campus to the town of Sweetwater, about 45 minutes west of Miami, where many of them live.
“We’ve got to look at the reality there may be some negligence down the line,” Perez told Miami radio station WIOD. “[The inquiries] will help determine whether someone is liable for this. It’s obviously an accident either way. We have to look to see if somebody contributed to that accident.”
At a morning press briefing, Perez said a team of prosecutors led by the Miami-Dade state attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle had visited the site of the collapse on Friday morning to assist the inquiry.
State officials revealed on Thursday night that the university’s bridge-build team, which included MCM and the Tallahassee-based Figg Bridge Group, had hired a third-party company to conduct an independent, secondary design review of the project, and that that contractor was not pre-qualified by the Florida transport department to do the work.
Carlos Giménez, the Miami-Dade mayor, said he believed MCM workers were conducting a stress test on the bridge when it collapsed, while Florida’s junior US senator, Marco Rubio, tweeted that support cables were being tightened.
Asked at the press conference why traffic passing under the bridge had not been halted, Perez said: “These are the answers we are looking for as well.”
So far, neither MCM nor Figg has responded to questions about the tragedy other than through social media posts expressing sympathy for the victims and promising full cooperation with continuing investigations.
Both companies have safety records that are giving rise to questions. A TSA worker at Fort Lauderdale airport filed a lawsuit against Munilla alleging “shoddy work” that caused injuries in another footbridge project.
The Miami Herald, meanwhile, said that sites constructed by MCM had been investigated by federal authorities eight times since 2013, resulting in four separate fines for violations.
MCM is owned by five brothers from the Munilla family, several of them former students at FIU. The company has built terminals at south Florida’s airports and cruise ports, and a school for the US government at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.
Figg, the company behind major bridge construction projects including the Sunshine Skyway over Tampa Bay, was fined by the Virginia labor department after the collapse of a section of the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge on to railway tracks in 2012, according to the Virginian-Pilot.
Mark Rosenberg, the president of FIU, said the university was heartbroken about the death of the as yet unnamed student.
“This bridge was about goodness, now it’s about sadness,” he said. “Everybody’s in shock and we just want answers.”