The light at the intersection of Southwest 109th Avenue and Eighth Street was turning from yellow to red as Dania Garlobo was just coming to a stop. She was second in line from the traffic light, heading west to her job as a manicurist at a beauty salon on Coral Way.
Detective Jenna Mendez was driving in the opposite direction, heading east on Eighth Street, back to her office off 109th Avenue at the Sweetwater Police Department. She was stopped at a light three blocks west of the bridge.
They both had the gleaming new bridge span, put into place on Saturday, looming ahead of them. The $14.2 million bridge, still under construction, was to connect Sweetwater to Florida International University, protecting students as they crossed the six-laned Southwest Eighth Street.
Suddenly, the 950-ton span crumbled.
It snapped at the far ends and came down over the vehicles under it, like a mattress that was just plopping down, Garlobo said. There was almost no dust left in its wake. There was no loud bang or Earth-rattling quake.
Just a “plop.”
“I started crying. I started screaming,” Garlobo said. “I didn’t think of myself in that moment, I thought of all the people under the bridge. … I thought, ‘God, there could be kids, adults, whomever, there are people under there!’ ”
At first, Mendez, the detective, was confused.
“I was at the intersection right before it. When I saw it, I thought: ‘Why are they doing that? Why are they lowering the bridge?’ I was in shock.”
Then, Mendez quickly realized something terrible had happened. “I turned on my lights and sirens, wiggled through traffic, parked my car and jumped on the bridge.”
All around Garlobo, drivers left their cars and rushed toward the bridge. She got on the phone with 911.
Some help, such as Mendez, arrived immediately. She was part of a squad of Sweetwater police who were the first on the scene. She said they tended to four construction workers bleeding and badly injured. One of the men still had a cable attached to him.
“We had one who was not breathing. We started chest compressions,” Mendez said. “I started screaming to the crowd, saying please go find me doctors. Find me first responders.”
Two bystanders sprinted as the catastrophe unfolded outside FIU’s medical school. Soon a woman emerged telling Mendez she was a doctor.
“She began assisting with CPR,” Mendez said.
When paramedics arrived, Mendez climbed down and started crawling under the bridge to help two young people trapped in a gray Toyota SUV that was stuck under the bridge. “Don’t ask me how I jumped up there,” she said. “I needed help getting down.”
The male, an FIU student, survived after they helped him out of the back door of the truck. The driver, a female, was dead, the detective said. Before she could do any more under the bridge, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue workers ordered her out from under the concrete.
“He started crying,” Mendez said of the FIU student as she left. “I told him there is nothing you can do. I was just trying to comfort him.”
FIU’s own police force rushed to the scene as well, facing the most severe emergency in the history of the suburban campus.
Just five minutes before the pedestrian bridge collapsed, FIU Police Chief Alex Casas had driven underneath it on his way to campus. He parked his car and walked into a building for a meeting when an urgent dispatch went out over the radio.
It was from a sergeant back at the police station. He had been doing paperwork in his office overlooking the bridge when the station shook.
“When the call goes out, it’s one of those where you have to second guess yourself because what you’re hearing sounds unbelievable,” Casas recalled Friday.
Within minutes, Casas and other FIU cops rushed to the scene. Dust choked the air. “You could hear the creaking and groaning of the debris and metal still settling,” he said.
Officers and onlookers desperately tried to pull people out and help the injured. But victims in cars, trapped under the crumpled concrete, were frustratingly out of reach for the emergency responders.
“They were doing amazing things but there were people you could almost touch, but you couldn’t help them,” Casas said. “We just weren’t strong enough to open that car door or move that cinder block.”
Miami Herald staff writers David Ovalle and Charles Rabin and el Nuevo Herald staff writer Brenda Medina contributed to this report.