Miami-Dade County

FIU says it knew about crack on bridge, and state’s Transportation Department did, too

Recovery operations continue Friday evening, March 16, 2018, at the site of the collapsed FIU pedestrian bridge. On Saturday, Florida International University said its team met with engineers and Florida’s Department of Transportation to discuss a crack discovered on the structure just hours before the March 15 collapse.
Recovery operations continue Friday evening, March 16, 2018, at the site of the collapsed FIU pedestrian bridge. On Saturday, Florida International University said its team met with engineers and Florida’s Department of Transportation to discuss a crack discovered on the structure just hours before the March 15 collapse. mocner@miamiherald.com

Hours before Florida International University’s new pedestrian bridge collapsed onto traffic, the school met with engineers and the state’s Department of Transportation for two hours to discuss whether a crack on the structure was a safety risk, FIU said in a statement Saturday.

The disclosure followed a Friday night announcement from FDOT that an engineer hired by FIU had called the agency days before the March 15 collapse to flag the crack and say he did not think it was a safety issue. The voicemail message was not received until Friday, according to FDOT.

Also in the statement, FDOT said one of its consultants attended a meeting with the FIU bridge team — including executives from Munilla Construction Management, the contractor, and Figg, the engineering contractor — hours before the collapse that killed at least six people. The statement said no “life-safety issues” were discussed. The statement did not mention that the crack in the bridge came up during the meeting. FIU said the crack was the reason the meeting was called, and that it lasted two hours.

In its own statement Saturday morning, FIU said the crack was discussed in the presence of an FDOT representative. “The FIGG engineer of record delivered a technical presentation regarding the crack and concluded that there were no safety concerns and the crack did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge,” the statement read. “This meeting lasted approximately two hours and included FIU and FDOT representatives.”

National Transportation Safety Board Chief Investigator Robert Accetta told reporters Friday it was too early to say if cracks played a role in the FIU bridge collapse. He also said the presence of cracks is not necessarily a red flag for safety.

“I would have to say that a crack in the bridge does not necessarily mean it’s unsafe,” he said, though NTSB investigators made it clear that they had not confirmed whether there were cracks. “That’s still too early in the investigation for us to determine.”

The 9 a.m. meeting Thursday was called by a Figg engineer to “discuss a crack that appeared on the structure.” The meeting occurred at an MCM trailer on the construction site. It apparently ended at 11 a.m., and the bridge collapsed shortly before 2 p.m.

FIU President Mark Rosenberg said Friday that crews had been performing stress tests on the bridge before the collapse in an effort to test the “resiliency of the concrete.”

The confirmation of a project meeting hours before the collapse raises the question of what — if any — action was ordered out of the gathering, and whether participants discussed the need to close the roadway beneath the bridge as a result of any action plan. Rosenberg and county officials have said bridge testing was underway before the collapse.

Dueling statements from Florida’s Transportation Department and Miami-Dade’s only state university highlighted the effort by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration to distance itself from the collapsed bridge.

Hours after the collapse, the Transportation Department, led by a Scott appointee, issued a fact sheet Thursday evening saying the agency’s involvement “was limited to” traffic-control permits, serving as a funding pass-through and authorizing FIU “to utilize the aerial space above the state road.”

Rosenberg said he learned of the release as he was heading out to a campus press conference with Scott, where the governor told reporters: “It was not a FDOT project. It was an FIU project. There will clearly be an investigation to find out exactly what happened, and why this happened. We will hold anybody accountable if anybody has done anything wrong.”

In an interview Friday, Rosenberg said he hasn’t spoken to Scott since and did not know the governor was going to say what he did about FIU’s responsibility for the project. The state university president said Florida transportation officials were in fact closely involved with the project.

“We’ve had a good relationship with FDOT — I just want to make it clear,” he said. “So we’re anxious to find out more about what they think we didn’t do. Because they’ve been involved at every step.”

Records released Friday by Sweetwater, a partner in the FIU bridge connecting the city with the campus over Southwest Eighth Street, showed FDOT officials attending multiple planning meetings throughout 2017 with FIU administrators and private contractors. Minutes of an April 24, 2017, meeting noted the permit needed to build the bridge over Eighth Street, a state road, was awaiting approval from Scott’s transportation secretary. Maydel Santana, an FIU spokeswoman, said on Friday afternoon that FDOT did ultimately approve the bridge design.

This post was updated to correct who was Florida’s transportation secretary in April 2017. Rachel Cone was tapped as interim secretary after the resignation of Jim Buxold on Feb. 3, 2017, and before the appointment of current secretary, Mike Dew, on June 5, 2017.

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