It took about 12 hours after the pedestrian bridge connecting Florida International University and Sweetwater crumbled, killing at least six, for first responders to make the call to shift the search-and-rescue mission to a search and recover.
How many hours — or days — it’ll take to return the bodies pinned in the eight crushed cars beneath the 950-ton bridge to their loved ones is unclear. Even more uncertain is when Southwest Eighth Street will be swept free from debris, a monumental task.
With hope of finding survivors extinguished, workers turned their focus to retrieving the bodies entombed in rubble as grieving family members watched from the sidelines. Overnight, one woman begged rescuers to let her search for her missing daughter.
The next morning, the mother of 18-year-old Alexa Duran watched and weeped from the adjacent parking garage as workers sifted through the rubble for her daughter’s body.
Throughout the night and the day after the disaster, crews cut the concrete and removed it piece by piece.
Cranes, forklifts and other massive heavy machinery helped break up the bigger chunks, like the southern end of the collapsed walkway, which had buckled and was standing partially upright. Hard hat and safety-vest clad workers chipped away at smaller pieces with chainsaws. Fire Rescue workers sprayed the pile of rubble with water to keep the dust in check.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said he came down with a team of 15 investigators whom he expects will be here for a few days. He said the team — charged by Congress to find out what happened and make recommendations on how to stop it from re-occurring — won’t be able to begin work until the bodies are removed.
No one was willing to give a firm timeframe on how long that might take. The removal of bodies is the responsibility of local authorities.
“That’s a very important part of the process that has to be done right,” Sumwalt told reporters Friday night.
He said his team will use the information gathered in Miami to embark on a deep dive into the project’s details. The analysis could stretch on for months, much like the investigation into a similar disaster in Minnesota more than a decade ago.
On Aug. 1, 2007, an eight-lane, 1,907-foot-long bridge experienced “catastrophic failure,” falling into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and leaving 145 others injured, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. The director of communications at the Minnesota Department of Transportation Kevin Gutknecht said the investigation took 18 months.
“You can break down what happens in hours, in weeks, in months, and in years,” Gutknecht said. “In days, you have an effort to save lives. You have firefighters, doctors, first responders, police, public officials––all coming out and trying to get people out of the rubble.”
After all survivors have been identified and rescued, the response process enters a second phase, Gutknecht said. “That’s what’s called ‘recovery,’ where you find the bodies of the people that perished. That takes longer. It can take days and weeks.”
The logistics of removing rubble that has trapped people underneath are complicated, particularly when a major thoroughfare is completely blocked off because of the debris, as is the case with the FIU bridge. Not only do families want to know the fate of their loved ones as soon as possible, but traffic flow will likely remain extra congested while drivers detour around the closure. State officials have said Southwest Eighth Street will be closed indefinitely between Southwest 107th and 117th avenues.
Meanwhile, workers need to navigate dangerous conditions and move heavy debris in a way that doesn't hurt the recovery team.
This slow-moving process frustrated victims' families after part of a five-story parking garage at Miami Dade College's Doral campus collapsed during construction in October 2012. Tons of concrete and steel fell in pancake fashion, killing four workers.
Within the first 24 hours, three people were declared dead. But one worker's body remained trapped in the rubble for eight days, prompting his family to protest work crews' pace amid a painful wait for his remains to be extracted.
In the case of the fallen garage, workers had to safely work through chunks of mangled concrete and steel with big equipment and cameras to find the dead.
After the victims have been recovered, then the bulk of the investigative work begins.
“Once you get everyone out, then you can take stock of the wreckage and start to figure out what happened,” Gutknecht said.
Like the FIU bridge, there were many questions about cause when the Minnesota bridge failed. But Gutknecht said investigators prioritized rescue efforts over preserving the scene for forensic work.
“The primary motive was first and foremost to save lives,” he said. “If we had to move something to save a life, we would move something.”
The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed his account in their report.
“Because finding and identifying victims had a higher priority than preserving evidence,” the report read, “some postaccident damage was done to the bridge structural components as they were removed from the scene."
Once the investigation was underway, analysts took pieces of the bridge, and laid them out in the park near the collapse site.
“They laid them out how they would have been arranged on the bridge,” Gutknecht said. “They also took what you would call ‘significant pieces’ from the site, loaded them onto a truck and took them to the east coast for further analysis. That way they could see where was stress applied, where the bridge collapsed, whether there was excess pressure, and all that.”
Like other structural collapses investigated by the NTSB, this investigation is expected to be thorough and stretch out over many months — if not years.
The board will be delving into new territory in its inquiry. In a Friday night press conference, the board’s lead investigator for the collapse said federal bridge engineers have taken note of the bridge’s unique design.
“This is a different design type of bridge,” he said. “It’s something we’ve not encountered before.”
Miami Herald Staff Writers Charles Rabin, Monique O. Madan and Writer Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.