Aerial footage captures aftermath of FIU bridge collapse
When a 175-foot stretch of a concrete bridge collapsed Thursday afternoon over Southwest Eighth Street, slamming down onto cars waiting at a stoplight, a prominent construction team instantly came under scrutiny.
Munilla Construction Management and FIGG Bridge Group, the firms behind the $14.3 million walkway connecting Florida International University to the tiny blue-collar burb of Sweetwater, have a long history of massive public works projects, political donations — and a few safety issues.
MCM is one of the most influential construction firms in Miami-Dade, and its executives are significant donors in county races. Pedro Munilla, the partner and company vice president who helps lead the firm, is a former attorney who was effectively disbarred in 2001. A Florida Supreme Court filing said Munilla agreed to a “disciplinary resignation” which is “tantamount to disbarment.” His Florida Bar listing includes his MCM email address and identifies Munilla as “not eligible to practice law in Florida.”
He enjoys cordial relationships with elected officials at all levels of government. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he spoke by phone with Munilla in the hours after the collapse while the mayor was in Hong Kong during a trade mission. One of Gimenez’s sons, lobbyist C. J. Gimenez, has registered to lobby for MCM in the past, and his other son, Julio, used to work for the company as a construction executive.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also said he talked to Munilla Thursday during a tour of the rubble. Rubio said he didn’t ask Munilla what he thought caused the crash. “Those guys were shaken over there,” Rubio said. “There was not an opportunity to get into that.”
MCM has worked on terminals at PortMiami and Miami International Airport, constructed roads and bridges, and built churches and schools. The firm, owned by Pedro Munilla and his four brothers, appeared in 90 documents on the federal hub for construction contracts, many military related, including $130 million in jobs from the Department of Defense and a $66 million school at the Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay.
FIGG, a high-profile firm in its own right, was responsible for building the pedestrian bridge over Tallahassee's Cascades Park and the Broadway Bridge crossing the Halifax River in Daytona Beach.
The firm, known for its artful designs, was behind the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay.
It also was chosen to build the replacement to the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., after an aging and structurally deficient bridge collapsed in 2007. The $233.8 million 10-lane replacement bridge was heralded for its state-of-the art safety systems, including sensors designed to monitor bridge stress and corrosion. Additionlly, NASA contracted FIGG to repair an unspecified number of bridges at both the Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in September 2011.
FIGG has its headquarters in Tallahassee with offices in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Texas and Colorado. The company specializes in all types of bridge design and focuses solely on bridge design and engineering both in the U.S. and abroad, according to the company's website.
Together, the two companies are fighting in court for a massive state contract awarded to a rival team to build a signature bridge over the stretch of Interstate 395 that passes over downtown Miami toward Miami Beach. Miami-Dade commissioners last year joined in the effort to block the $800 million state-funded project for a significant infrastructure project with no local dollars required, urging Florida not to award the contract to MCM's competitor.
They teamed up in 2015 to win the FIU pedestrian bridge project, and dropped an elevated 950-ton span in place over Southwest Eighth Street a few days ago only to watch it fall Thursday, crushing people in their cars below.
Federal, state and local investigators, including homicide detectives, have not yet determined how or why a section of the 320-foot bridge fell. The Florida Department of Transportation said the pedestrian walkway was built at an off-site location by MCM and set in place on top of two piers that were constructed on-site. Barnhart Crane and Rigging, contracted to move the bridge into place, said its “work was completed without incident and according to all technical requirements.”
“Our deepest sympathies are with all those affected by this accident,” FIGG said in a statement. “We will fully cooperate with every appropriate authority in reviewing what happened and why. In our 40-year history, nothing like this has ever happened before.”
Except, that’s not entirely accurate.
FIGG, which provides design, engineering and construction services, was cited by the Virginia Department of Labor for four violations in 2012 after a 90-ton piece of concrete fell from a bridge under construction near Norfolk, Virginia. The builder did not get the manufacturer's written consent before it modified a girder that ultimately failed, causing the concrete to crash to the ground, according to the Virginia Pilot Ledger.
MCM construction sites, meanwhile, have been inspected eight times by the federal government since 2013 and fined on four occasions for violations worth more than $50,000. The company has also faced a slew of standard negligence and personal liability cases — typical in the industry. A contractual dispute with a subcontractor that walked off the job resulted in a $143,000 judgment against MCM; the subcontractor cited safety issues with the project, a $13.5 million bridge reconstructing project on Red Road.
Court documents from the lawsuit show that Southeastern Engineering Contractors left the job, citing structural problems and “arguable collapse” at the worksite because of the “failure of temporary sheet piles on the south bend of the site.” Attempts to reach attorneys representing both sides in that case were unsuccessful, as were efforts to reach principal Pedro Munilla by cellphone.
“MCM is a family business and we are all devastated and doing everything we can to assist,” MCM said in a statement on its Facebook page. “We will conduct a full investigation to determine exactly what went wrong and will cooperate with investigators on scene in every way.”
The Munilla family is Miami-based — nearly half their bridge team were FIU graduates — and they are prolific political givers. The five brothers who run the company — Fernando, Juan, Pedro, Raul, and Jorge, an FIU alumnus himself — have given more than $500,000 combined since 2000, and their family members have given hundreds of thousands more.
The biggest recipient has been the anti-Castro US-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, to which the brothers have donated more than $100,000. They have donated more than $60,000 to committees supporting Mario Diaz-Balart, who helped secure the federal grant for the project.
“We're going to find out what the heck happened here, this is beyond tragic,” Diaz-Balart said.
The company and its founders also contributed $165,000 to state political candidates in the last 20 years, including more than $19,000 to the Florida Transportation Builders Association political committee in the 2016 cycle and $10,000 to a Homestead-based political committee called "Change is Good,'' in 2015.
FIGG and its prncipals contributed more than $99,000 to state political candidates in the last 20 years, most of it — $60,000 — to the Republican Party of Florida during the time the Garcon Point Bridge in Santa Rosa County was under investigation in 2001. The bridge was constructed by Odebrecht-Metric, which paid $4-million in fines and restitution for violating the Clean Water Act for illegal dumping of cement into Pensacola Bay during the construction. Figg Engineers, which did the inspections and were responsible for oversight of the construction, were not charged.
Federally, the Figg family has given more than $90,000 to candidates and committees since 2000.
Another engineering and consulting company involved in the bridge project was Miami’s Bolton, Perez and Associates, which told the Miami Herald that it was hired to administer contracts but not for any design work.
“We are not going to speculate on the cause at this time,” John W. Bolton, the director of construction services, said of the collapse.
Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Mary Ellen Klas, David J. Neal, Carol Rosenberg, and Jay Weaver, and McClatchy reporters Kevin Hall and Tom Hart contributed to this report.