Tearful Families Wait as Bodies Remain Under Failed Bridge
A worker uses a saw next to a crushed car under a section of a collapsed pedestrian bridge, Friday, March 16, 2018 near Florida International University in the Miami area. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Two vehicles containing three bodies were removed from the wreckage of a collapsed Miami bridge Saturday as authorities continued to remove debris in attempt to extract at least four cars still trapped since the span fell two days earlier.

“Right now we’re just chipping away,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez.

Perez said DNA evidence, fingerprints and family photos might be needed to identify the victims.

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Meanwhile authorities are continuing to investigate the collapse and whether cracking that was reported just before the span fell contributed to the bridge failure.

Authorities said Friday that cables supporting a pedestrian bridge under construction in Florida were being tightened following a “stress test” when the 950-ton concrete span collapsed over traffic, killing at least six people, injuring 10 others and flattening an untold number of cars.

Officials expected to find more bodies in the rubble. People who haven’t heard from their loved ones congregated near the scene.

An engineer left a voicemail two days before the collapse to say some cracking had been found at one end of the concrete span, but the voicemail wasn’t picked up until after the collapse, Florida Department of Transportation officials said Friday.

The voicemail left on a landline wasn’t heard by a state DOT employee until Friday because the employee was out of the office on an assignment, the agency said in an email.

In a transcript released Friday night, Denney Pate with FIGG Bridge Group says the cracking would need repairs “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.”

On Saturday, FIU released a statement saying representatives from the university and DOT met with a FIGG engineer for two hours Thursday morning to discuss the cracking and determined there wasn’t a safety issue. The bridge fell soon afterward.

“The FIGG engineer of record delivered a technical presentation regarding the crack and concluded that there were no safety concerns and the crack did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge,” FIU said.

At a news conference Friday night, officials from the National Transportation Safety Board said they have just begun their investigation, and cannot yet say whether any cracking contributed to the collapse. They also said workers were trying to strengthen a diagonal member on the bridge when it collapsed.

Robert Accetta, the investigator-in-charge for the NTSB, said crews were applying post-tensioning force, but investigators aren’t sure if that’s what caused the bridge to fall.

Richie Humble, who studies at FIU, was riding in a car under the pedestrian bridge when he heard a long creaking noise coming from the structure that spanned a busy Miami-area highway. It sounded different from anything he had ever heard before.

“I looked up, and in an instant, the bridge was collapsing on us completely. It was too quick to do anything about it,” Humble said Friday in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Once Humble realized he was alive, he also realized that he could not get to Duran. He called to her but got no response. A group of men outside the car started yelling at him to try crawling through the rear window.

He couldn’t squeeze through because the window was crushed. The men outside grabbed a wooden plank and pried open the rear door to pull him free, he said.

“I was trying to get people to realize my friend was still in there,” he said.

He suffered cuts to his leg from glass and a slight fracture to a vertebra, but he was able to walk away from the scene.

While families waited for word on their loved ones, investigators sought to understand why the 950-ton bridge gave way during construction. The cables supporting the span were being tightened following a “stress test” when it collapsed, authorities said.

Jorge and Carol Fraga drove from West Palm Beach, fearing their relative’s car was trapped beneath the bridge at Florida International University. Sixty-year-old Rolando Fraga, Jorge’s uncle, lives in the area and frequently takes the nearby turnpike to work, but no one has heard from him since mid-day Thursday.

“The waiting is so … I don’t have words for that,” Carol Fraga said through tears.

The $14.2 million project was supposed to be a hallmark of the faster, cheaper and less risky method of bridge-building promoted by the university. Slated to open in 2019, it would have provided safe passage over a canal and six lanes of traffic, and created a showpiece architectural feature connecting the FIU campus and the community of Sweetwater, where many students live.

Relatives of those missing following Thursday’s pedestrian bridge collapse in Miami are anxiously waiting to hear whether their loved ones are safe and alive.

As state and federal investigators worked to determine why the five-day-old span failed, Florida politicians pointed to the stress test and loosened cables as possible factors, and a police chief asked everyone not to jump to conclusions.

“This is a tragedy that we don’t want to re-occur anywhere in the United States,” said Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade police. “We just want to find out what caused this collapse to occur and people to die.”

On Twitter, Miami-Dade Police asked people to contact the homicide bureau with any information about a cause.

A Florida International University student was among the fatalities, and several construction workers were among the 10 people injured. One person died at a hospital, and Perez said five bodies were located with the help of cameras but not yet retrieved from vehicles crushed under the immense slab. No identities have been released.

“We’re not even going to talk numbers anymore because we expect to find other individuals down there,” Perez said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said crews had conducted a “stress test” on the span earlier in the day, and Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that the engineering firm involved had ordered the tightening of cables that had become loosened. “They were being tightened when it collapsed,” Rubio said on Twitter Thursday night.

Experts from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration joined police in taking over command of the scene Friday from first responders, who had spent hours racing to find survivors in the rubble of the 175-foot span using high-tech listening devices, trained sniffing dogs and search cameras.

What was the bridge needed for?

When finished, the bridge would have been supported from above, with a tall, off-center tower and cables attached to the walkway. That tower had not yet been installed, and it was unclear what builders were using as temporary supports.

Andy Herman, a bridge engineer and former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, told The Associated Press that its so-called “accelerated bridge construction” has been used for years without problems.

He said municipalities like this method because it allows for building a bridge faster “because you’re doing a lot of the work in a centralized location where you don’t have to worry about being over traffic and then they drive it or lift it into place over the traffic with minimal downtime – so the advantage is that they can build it faster with less disruption to traffic.”

The school has long been interested in this kind of bridge design; in 2010, it opened an Accelerated Bridge Construction Center to “provide the transportation industry with the tools needed to effectively and economically utilize the principles of ABC to enhance mobility and safety, and produce safe, environmentally friendly, long-lasting bridges,” according to the university website.

The companies involved in the project

The project was a collaboration between MCM Construction, a Miami-based contractor, and Figg Bridge Design, based in Tallahassee. Figg is responsible for the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay. The FIU community, along with Sweetwater and county officials, held a “bridge watch party” on March 10 when the span was lifted from its temporary supports, rotated 90 degrees and lowered into what was supposed to be its permanent position.

Both companies have been involved in bridge collapses before.

FIGG was fined in 2012 after a section of a bridge it was building in Virginia crashed onto railroad tracks and injured several workers, according to a story in The Virginian-Pilot.

MCM, meanwhile, was accused of substandard work in a lawsuit filed this month by a worker injured when a makeshift bridge MCM built at Fort Lauderdale International Airport collapsed under his weight. Another dispute resulted in a $143,000 judgment against MCM over an “arguable collapse” at a Miami-Dade bridge project.

A review of OSHA records, meanwhile, shows MCM has been fined for 11 safety violations in the past five years totaling more than $50,000 after complaints involving its Florida work sites.

Both companies expressed condolences for the victims and promised cooperation with investigators.

Tearful Families Wait as Bodies Remain under Failed Bridge