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United States

Last bodies recovered from collapsed Miami university bridge as victim’s family rages at ‘incompetence’ 

Two days before the collapse, an engineer left a voicemail to say some cracking had been found in the bridge – but it wasn’t picked up until after the collapse

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 8:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 4:03pm

As crews removed bodies from beneath a collapsed pedestrian bridge in Miami, one victim’s uncle raged against what he called the “complete incompetence” and “colossal failure” that allowed people to drive beneath the unfinished concrete span.

“Why they had to build this monstrosity in the first place to get children across the street?” said an anguished Joe Smitha, whose niece, Alexa Duran, was crushed in Thursday’s collapse at Florida International University.

“Then they decided to stress test this bridge while traffic was running underneath it?”

Six people died, including five whose bodies were recovered on Saturday as workers pulled out vehicles from the rubble, officials said.

Police had feared the death toll could rise above six. But authorities found what they believe to be the last body on Saturday, Miami-Dade Police Department director Juan Perez said.

Three of the victims found on Saturday were identified by police as Rolando Fraga Hernandez, Oswald Gonzalez and Alberto Arias. The names of two others whose bodies were removed from the rubble on Saturday were not immediately released.

Another victim, who died in a hospital after the collapse, was identified by police as Navarro Brown.

The National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that crews were applying what’s known as “post-tensioning force” on the bridge before the failure.

Authorities are investigating whether cracking that was reported just before the span fell contributed to the accident.

Experts were mixed on the significance of those reported cracks.

Amjad Aref, a professor with the University of Buffalo’s Institute of Bridge Engineering, said they should have been “a big red flag”.

“Bridges are really very vulnerable when they are under construction, when there are just pieces,” he said.

“It’s like still a flimsy structure. And when you see cracks, somebody has to raise really a big flag and say, ‘We need to do something. We need to figure out what’s happening quickly and do any mitigating actions to prevent further progression of damage and ultimately collapse,’ as we saw here.”

This was a colossal failure of the system
Joe Smitha

But Ralph Verrastro, principal of Naples-based Bridging Solutions, was not surprised to hear about cracks, and said it was not necessarily a problem.

“Any bridge with concrete, that’s made of concrete, there’s always cracks,” said Verrastro, who has been an engineer for 42 years.

“If they had concerns that something was going on for that main span, then they would have called the sheriff or the police and closed the road.

“I would be very surprised if it’s determined that they were taking a chance and trying to do something under traffic. It’s just, as bridge engineers, that’s just never done.”

Two days before the collapse, an engineer with the design firm left a voicemail 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.

In a transcript, Denney Pate with FIGG Bridge Group said the cracking would need repairs but the company didn’t think it was a safety issue.

In a statement Saturday, university officials said its representatives and transport officials met with a FIGG engineer for two hours Thursday to discuss the cracking, and determined there wasn’t a safety issue. The bridge fell soon afterward.

NTSB officials have said it’s too early to say whether any cracking contributed to the collapse.

FIGG Bridge Engineers said it “continues to work diligently” to determine the cause of the collapse, and is examining the steps its team has taken.

It added: “The evaluation was based on the best available information at that time and indicated that there were no safety issues.” It also asked for time to accurately determine what led to the accident.

Expected to open in 2019, the bridge was to provide safe passage over a canal and six lanes of traffic, a showpiece architectural feature connecting the campus with Sweetwater.

The US$14.2 million project was supposed to take advantage of a faster, cheaper and safer method of bridge-building promoted by the university.

Smitha, Duran’s uncle, can’t help but believe that this tragedy could have been avoided.

“This was a colossal failure of the system,” he said.

“This was complete incompetence from the top … I want someone to step up and say, ‘The buck stops with me.’”

Additional reporting by Reuters