With the grim work of recovering bodies from the wreckage under way, and the death toll expected to rise, crews labored Friday to lift, cut and dig through chunks of the 950-ton concrete bridge that collapsed over Tamiami Trail this week, killing at least six people and injuring 10 more.
While rescuers worked through the day and night to clear the rubble, the Florida Department of Transportation said late Friday that two days before the bridge collapsed the lead engineer responsible for the project had left a voice mail with an agency worker saying there was cracking in the structure.
The FDOT worker did not receive the voice mail until Friday, the agency said in a statement that included a transcript of the message from Denney Pate with FIGG Bridge Group, which engineered the structure.
“Obviously some repairs will need to be done but from a safety perspective we don’t see that there’s any issue there so we’re not concerned ... although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that,” Pate said in the voice mail transcript provided by FDOT.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said they have not yet independently confirmed the reported cracking and could not say what, if any, role it might have played in the catastrophic collapse. Some amount of cracking is common in concrete construction.
“A crack in the bridge does not necessarily mean it’s unsafe,” Robert Accetta, the lead NTSB investigator, said during a briefing Friday night on the Florida International University campus.
FIGG issued a statement late Friday saying the firm would cooperate with investigators and was examining its own assessment of the cracking. “The evaluation was based on the best available information at that time and indicated that there were no safety issues. We will pursue answers to find out what factors led to this tragic situation, but it is important that the agencies responsible for investigating this devastating situation are given the appropriate time in order to accurately identify what factors led to the accident during construction.”
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the investigation would take several more days while the recovery effort continues. He said the agency would focus on figuring out what went wrong — and how to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again.
It was still uncertain how long it would take to recover the remaining victims and to clear Tamiami Trail, which remains blocked to all traffic. Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said rescue workers had confirmed at least five bodies remain under the bridge, although that number could rise.
Federal investigators also confirmed an earlier report from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio that bridge workers were tightening two tension cables inside a support truss located at the northern end of the structure. The work was supposed to strengthen the truss.
Rubio posted a message on Twitter shortly after leaving the scene of the accident late Thursday: “The cables that suspend the #Miami bridge had loosened & the engineering firm ordered that they be tightened. They were being tightened when it collapsed today.”
The cable tightening, along with the reported cracks, added to the growing list of issues that the NTSB will examine. Shortly after the bridge collapsed, local officials also reported the structure had undergone a “stress test.” It’s also too early to say what, if any, role that might have played in the failure.
Beyond the cause of the collapse, more questions remain.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo said he questioned why cars would be allowed to travel under a bridge undergoing a stress test. He said he spoke to experts about it and, “They have all told me they’ve never conducted stress tests on a bridge with anyone underneath.”
Florida’s transportation department, in its Friday statement, said it never received a request from FIU or its contractors to close the road for stress testing. FDOT said it had issued a blanket permit allowing for two-lane closures effective from January through April, and that “Per standard safety procedure, FDOT would issue a permit for partial or full road closure if deemed necessary and requested by the FIU design build team’’ or its construction inspector.
The NTSB’s Sumwalt said the agency’s team of 15 investigators will be conducting their own probe of the collapse, independent of local authorities. He expected the agency’s work would begin Friday once rescuers have recovered all the victims.
“Our entire purpose for being here,” Sumwalt said, “is to find out what happened so that we can keep it from happening again.”
Federal safety officials are asking anyone who saw the bridge collapse to contact them via email at email@example.com.
While rescuers searched for the dead, and investigators documented the evidence in painstaking detail, Perez said police were working to contact the families of those whose bodies have been identified.
Among the dead identified Friday were Alexa Duran, a freshman political science major at FIU, and Navaro Brown, a 37-year-old bridge worker with Structural Technologies VSL, a company that reinforces concrete.
Then there are the missing.
Perez said investigators have an idea of who may have been inside some of the eight cars crushed under the bridge because of their license plates. But police cannot be certain who was behind the wheel of each car, or account for any possible passengers, until rescuers finish the grim task of clearing the rubble.
“This is going to be a long-term operation,” said Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey.
Miami-Dade rescue workers, homicide detectives, engineers and federal investigators have been working the scene since the bridge fell across eight lanes of the heavily traveled Tamiami Trail while unsuspecting drivers below waited at a red light.
Witnesses said the bridge snapped suddenly at the far ends and crashed down.
Dania Garlobo was driving to work when she brought her black Jeep Compass to a stop at the intersection shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday. Garlobo said she was second in line from the traffic light, heading westbound to a beauty salon on Coral Way, where she manicures nails, when the bridge suddenly fell.
“I started crying. I started screaming,” she 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!’ ”
As first responders rushed to the scene, Garlobo said the scope of damage was profound.
Officers and Good Samaritans desperately tried to pull people out of cars and help the injured. But some victims trapped under the bridge were frustratingly out of reach.
“You could hear the creaking and groaning of the debris and metal still settling,” said Florida International University Police Chief Alex Casas, who rushed to the scene.
Nine people pulled from the wreckage were rushed to Kendall Regional Medical Center, including two who required immediate surgery. Others sustained injuries ranging from scrapes and bruises to broken bones, which were not considered life threatening.
In all, ambulances transported 10 people to Kendall Regional on Thursday, said Peter Jude, a hospital spokesman. One of the victims died at the hospital.
On the FIU campus next door to the collapsed bridge, some families waited overnight for word on their missing loved ones. Miami-Dade homicide detectives, American Red Cross workers and at least one therapy-dog handler staffed the center, which was closed to media
Grace Meinhofer-Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said that as of 3:30 p.m. Friday, the center had taken in more than 60 family members searching for missing loved ones.
“They’ve been waiting here since yesterday, so it’s been a long process for them,” she said. Families of those confirmed dead met in a different area of the reunification center.
As federal safety officials continue their inquiry, state and local officials clarified the chain of oversight for the pedestrian bridge, which was funded with federal dollars and administered by the university.
The span that collapsed was the first piece of a planned 320-foot-long pedestrian bridge that would have connected FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus to the neighboring city of Sweetwater, where about 4,000 university students live.
The $14.2 million structure, which FIU had touted as an innovative “instant” bridge because of construction techniques intended to speed up the work and minimize disruption to commuter traffic, was installed in less than six hours.
FIU did not respond Friday night to the state’s release of the voice mail warning about cracking on the bridge or the failure to alert the state about stress testing.
But earlier in the day, FIU President Mark Rosenberg said it was part of on-going testing of the structure, which was still under construction and not not expected to open to student foot traffic until 2019.
“I was told there were tests going on throughout the day,” Rosenberg said. “I assume they were tests to see the resiliency of the concrete, the stress on the material.”
Rosenberg said that contractors monitored the stress on the concrete bridge on March 10 as it moved from level ground and cleared a berm between the assembly site and the bridge structure over Tamiami Trail.
“They were continually monitoring the stress on the concrete with the movement,” he said.
Miami Herald Staff Writers Sarah Blaskey, Howard Cohen, Joey Flechas, Kyra Gurney, Chabeli Herrera, Mary Ellen Klas, Monique Madan, Brenda Medina, Catalina Ruiz Parra, Rene Rodriguez, Carli Teproff and Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.