Miami-Dade County

‘Baby girl, God has a purpose for you!’ Fate, luck separated the living and dead in bridge disaster

Aerial footage captures aftermath of FIU bridge collapse

Aerial footage shows the aftermath of the FIU pedestrian bridge collapsing on Southwest Eighth Street in Miami on March 15, 2018.
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Aerial footage shows the aftermath of the FIU pedestrian bridge collapsing on Southwest Eighth Street in Miami on March 15, 2018.

Back and forth through the rubble Richie Humble paced, the cell phone jammed in his ear. He was screaming, not just to make himself heard over the cacophony of police sirens and car horns shrieking like the soundtrack of hell itself, but to make sense out of the sudden insanity that had swallowed his life whole. Moments ago, he’d been sitting in a friend’s SUV, headed home from a doctor’s appointment. And then suddenly the car was buried in concrete slabs and there was blood everywhere and a cop was pulling him away from the car and telling him there was nothing he could do.

“Mom!” he shouted, his voice heavy with fear, panic and the sheer incomprehensibility of what he was saying. “The bridge fell on us!”

Those five little words seem so inadequate to describe 950 tons of concrete toppling on a busy Sweetwater street March 15, killing six people and sending another nine to the hospital. But the abrupt violence of the collapse and its utter repudiation of human perceptions of reality — bridges don’t just collapse, not in America — seemed to strip language to its bare essential. “Imagine,” said the sister of one of the dead, her voice crosshatched with grief and awe, “his car was flat as a cracker.”

These are the victims of the FIU pedestrian bridge collapse.

It will be months, possibly even years — possibly even never — before we know exactly why the bridge fell. But in interviews with those who survived and the friends and families of those who didn’t, a picture begins to emerge of what happened, a tapestry of horror and heroism, of cruelty and kindness, of the agony of loss and the redemption of survival, and perhaps most of all, the way that fate, in a single disastrous instant, can unite hundreds of strangers in a chain of anguish.

***

Richie Humble certainly didn’t foresee any of that when he hopped into the Toyota 4Runner of his best friend, Alexa Duran, on Thursday afternoon. Though they were both Florida International University students, the school was on spring break and most students were away from campus.

Alexa Duran
Alexa Duran, right, a Florida International University student, died behind the wheel of her Toyota SUV when the bridge came tumbling down. A passenger in the seat next to her, Richard ‘Richie’ Humble, was spared. Facebook

So it was just geographical chance that brought them to the intersection of Southwest Eighth Street and 109th Avenue, directly adjacent to the university’s campus. Duran was driving Humble home from a doctor’s appointment. After dropping him, she planned to head off to meet her mother at D’Dago, the family’s dry-cleaning business in Hialeah.

As they traveled east in the right lane of Eighth Street, they had a bit of bad luck — worse luck than they could ever have imagined — approaching the intersection with 109th Avenue. A red traffic light halted them about 100 feet short of the intersection, right under the new pedestrian bridge that FIU had just installed a few days earlier to make it safer for students to cross busy Eighth Street.

The pedestrian bridge wasn’t quite finished and hadn’t been opened yet. Earlier in the week, inspectors had noticed some cracking, but said it wasn’t a safety issue. Details, however, are still undisclosed in the cone of official silence over everything connected to the bridge’s construction that would descend in just minutes.

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The National Transportation Safety Board’s Robert Sumwalt, left, and Robert Accetta discussed the collapse and the investigation that will follow in the coming months. Sumwalt is the chairman of the NTSB and Accetta is the investigator in charge of the FIU bridge case. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Also undisclosed: whether that cracking had anything to do with the decision to send a construction crew out on Thursday afternoon to adjust the tension rods running through the bridge’s support beams. It’s a delicate process; over-tightening a rod can make it snap, shattering the concrete around it. If the damage spreads and a beam fails, the entire structure can collapse. Loosening a rod can also lead to collapse if there’s undetected damage to the beam.

Unknown to Duran and Humble — or almost anybody else on the ground below — as they sat in their SUV waiting for the light to change, the crew was at work on one of the tension rods. It’s possible that their work somehow triggered what happened next.

The span, designed by the acclaimed FIGG Bridge Group and built by politically connected Miami-based firm MCM, simply plopped down to the ground, belching out an immense cloud of dust that settled quickly. When it cleared, there was no bridge, just a trail of concrete slabs lying flat on the ground across six and a half of the eight lanes of Eighth Street. Here and there, the horizontal plane of concrete bulged up slightly to reveal vehicles underneath.

Like an ant hill erupting in rage against intrusion, restaurants, offices and undamaged cars around the intersection emptied as their scores of occupants raced to the remains of the bridge to help. Several gathered around Duran’s SUV, where the stunned Humble was trying in vain to sit up straight.

Sitting on the passenger side of the SUV’s front seat, he had heard an ominous creaking sound somewhere up above. “So I looked up,” he would tell reporters later. “I saw the bridge falling on top of us. It fell on top of the car and caved it in, and it kinda caved in on my neck and squished me down.”

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Brandon Brownfield, a husband, father of three and tower crane technician , died in the collapse when his truck was crushed. His Facebook wall showed a photo of him smiling jauntily, in mirrored sunglasses, high above the skyline. Facebook

The driver’s side of the SUV was squeezed tightly against a collapsed span of the bridge, as if it had been pushed into a corner of a tiny attic. The vehicle’s roof was crushed so far down that Humble couldn’t get out, or even get a good look at Duran, though her blood could be seen everywhere. He called once, twice, again; no answer.

Outside, several men were urging him to try to climb into the back seat and exit from there. Humble managed to squirm into the back seat, but the door wouldn’t open. A Sweetwater policeman wielding a chunk of wood like a crowbar finally forced it, but Humble didn’t want to get out.

“I was trying to get people to realize my friend was still in there,” he said later. Screaming and crying, he had to be pulled away. Another Sweetwater cop, Sgt. Jenna Mendez, took him aside and gave him a bottle of water and some soothing words. “This is not your fault,” she told him. “There’s nothing you can do.”

Sweetwater Detective Jenna Méndez was driving in the opposite direction when the FIU pedestrian bridge collapsed Thursday. She sprung into action.

Humble calmed, a bit. But for a long time that afternoon, he could be seen striding along the yellow tape lining the police perimeter, just a few feet from the SUV, shouting to Duran. She didn’t answer.

***

Jenna Mendez didn’t regard Humble’s obsession with the silent SUV as anything unusual, perhaps because the bridge collapse had already made her sort of half-nuts. She had been one of the first police officers on the scene — though, ironically, she wasn’t even supposed to be on call. She had taken the morning off to meet with the guy who did her taxes, then was scheduled for a training exercise followed by some undercover work. (Which explained why her uniform for the day was ripped jeans and a blue hoodie.)

But nothing had gone the way it was supposed to. Though she waited two hours at his office for her tax guy, he never showed. Then, later, she tried to speed back to the police station, only to find the traffic on Eighth Street snarled up into one of those South Florida tangles that could drive even a cop to road rage.

Stewing in her own sour juices at a seemingly endless red light just three blocks away, Mendez saw the bridge go down. Her initial thought was perverse, that some government agency had gone amok and was deliberately demolishing a brand new structure. Why would they do that, they just put it up? she thought to herself.

Seconds later, snapping back into reality, Mendez was using her police lights and siren to weave through traffic until she parked within 20 feet of the wreckage of the bridge. She scrambled up atop the rubble on the north side — so high that she later couldn’t figure out how to get down — where she saw the four construction workers.

A civilian was already up there, giving CPR to an unconscious man who — though he had no apparent injuries — was virtually without a pulse. Still hooked to a safety harness, he had apparently toppled from the gantry of a nearby construction crane, though the harness may have kept him from hitting the ground. He had apparently suffered a heart attack as he plummeted toward the ground.

Mendez helped while glancing over at the other construction men. One was blacked out; another, with a huge wound on his head, wasn’t. And the CPR wasn’t working. Mendez realized that, in this battle against mortality, she and the civilian good Samaritan were outgunned.

“We need help up here!” she screamed to the crowd down below. “Are there any first responders?” Certain that everyone beneath the bridge was already dead, she added, “Come on — I’ve got live victims up here.”

Quickly a doctor appeared and the crowd helped her up the steep pile of rubble. Then other cops sent up a portable defibrillator, the little device that uses electrified paddles to shock heart-attack victims back to life. That didn’t work either. They passed him down a human chain to the ground.

Doctors and nurses respond to the scene of the FIU pedestrian bridge collapse on March 15, 2018.

As the construction workers were evacuated to ambulances, Mendez soon followed. When she reached the ground and peered into the little crawlway-type spaces under the concrete, she was suddenly certain that she had been wrong, that survivors lurked there, waiting for help. On hands and knees, Mendez lurched into the catacomb “like a crazy person,” she would say later.

Perhaps so. Ordered out of the underside of the wreckage, she huddled with Richie Humble for a while, then went back to the police station and promptly began to unravel. “I started panicking,” Mendez admits.

She sat down and began calling every single person she knew, making sure none of them were victims of the bridge. When that was done, she returned home. “And I hugged the shit out of my family,” she said.

***

By the time Mendez climbed down from the pile of bridge debris, the intersection was seething with police. Calls had begun flooding into 911 operators literally within seconds of the collapse at 1:47 p.m. And, just as the witnesses could scarcely believe their eyes, the operators could scarcely believe their ears.

“The bridge at FIU just collapsed on top of a lot of cars,” one of the first callers said.

“The what just collapsed?” replied a stunned Miami-Dade 911 operator.

Others sounded as if they were close to coming apart.

“They just put it up, they were working on it and it collapsed. It’s in the middle of the road,” one man said. “From what I see, oh, it’s so ugly. It must’ve hurt somebody.”

Or another: “Oh my God, oh my God!”

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An aerial view shows the Florida International University bridge recovery operations on Saturday, March 17, 2018. The wine-colored car driven by Emily Joy Panagos, its trunk crushed, is to the left of the fallen span, near the center of the frame. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

But no matter how many police officers you have, or how brave they are, there’s only so much they can do against a 950-ton bridge collapse. “They were doing amazing things but there were people you could almost touch, but you couldn’t help them,” said FIU Police Chief Alex Casas. “We just weren’t strong enough to open that car door or move that cinder block.”

Efforts to push aside the debris choked the air with dust; the resulting darkness only made the creaking and groaning of the settling wreckage more terrifying. Cops who penetrated far enough into the rubble to see the crushed cars beneath found some of them were flattened to knee level. Their drivers were almost never visible, just their blood.

“They were literally tombs,” Sweetwater Detective Juan Llera, who had driven, lights and siren blaring, from his office a few blocks away, thinking that the city was under terrorist attack, said of the pulverized vehicles. “It was sepulchral.”

The air smelled of wet concrete, a mixture of dust and spilled oil and transmission fluid; it echoed with the shrieks of both human beings — some of them victims, others witnesses who were cracking to pieces — and cars. In some of the vehicles, the drivers had been smashed down onto the steering wheel, keeping the horns wailing an angry shout against eternity.

From the sidelines, civilians talked in zombie monotones about what they had seen or wept without end. Workers from Sweetwater City Hall, just a couple of blocks away, drifted over from their offices to look on with empty eyes.

Perhaps they were contemplating Albert Einstein’s aphorism that “God does not play dice with the universe.” There were moments that day in which it surely seemed that merest chance was all that stood between a horrible death and another chance at life.

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A day before he died under an avalanche of concrete and metal from the FIU bridge collapse, Rolando Fraga, 60, shared a wistful quotation in Spanish on his Facebook page. ‘Nothing is forever. Coffee gets cold, people leave, time passes and people change.’

Dania Garalobo, a nursing student at Miami-Dade College’s Hialeah campus, was on her way to her job at a West Miami-Dade nail salon, driving behind an aggressive motorist in a white Mercedes. Rolling west on Eighth Street, she watched with interest as the driver floored the accelerator to make it through the traffic light at 109th Avenue, then thought better of it and stomped on the brakes at the last second. Half a moment later, the bridge fell into the street.

The Mercedes driver barely missed a certain death; two cars ahead were crushed right down to the tires. What the driver made of that is unknown; but Garalobo was so shaken that she couldn’t continue driving. She pulled over to the side of the road and called her boyfriend to come pick her up.

She spent the rest of the day crying, tormented by the memory of how close a total stranger came to death. Somehow it seemed more real to her than her own safety. “I couldn’t get it out of my head, what I saw,” she said. “I thought of all the people under the bridge.”

The call was even closer for 22-year-old FIU student Emily Joy Panagos, returning to school from spring break. Her wine-red Honda Civic was waiting at a red light just past the bridge when the bridge went down, flattening the back half of the car and knocking her unconscious.

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FIU student Emily Joy Panagos, 22, could have died in her wine-colored Honda Civic, but the front end of her car had just cleared the underside of the bridge. The falling concrete crushed her trunk. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Other drivers came running from every direction to get her out of the vehicle and lay her on the ground nearby. And when Panagos woke up, she was trembling, screaming and clutching an injured neck. One of the people who rescued her from the car, a woman named Suzie Bermudez, held her tight and whispered: “Baby girl, God has a purpose for you!”

The message apparently stuck. Later in the day, Panagos tweeted: “There’s no doubt in my mind that God gave me a second chance at life today. Everyday is truly a gift. Don’t [fail to] take advantage of being alive.”

For every happy ending, though, there seemed to be one that went the opposite direction. The construction worker kept alive by Jenna Mendez long enough to evacuate from the pile of debris needed more CPR when he reached the ground.

Her fellow officer Llera took on the job. “Stay with us, stay with us,” Llera urged the construction worker while compressing his chest. A medical professional from FIU showed up and congratulated Llera and another officer who was helping: “You’re keeping him alive.” Twenty minutes later, the construction worker was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Juan Llera
Sweetwater Detective Juan Llera rushed from his office down the street to the scene of the FIU bridge collapse, where he saw chaos and death. Llera and other first responders treated survivors. Courtesy of Juan Llera

Maybe one day I’ll shake his hand, Llera thought. Maybe one day I’ll sit down with him. He visited the hospital the next day to check on the man’s condition, but couldn’t get any information. In all the chaos of the collapse, that didn’t seem like a big deal.

But on Sunday, Llera got a call. The construction worker, 37-year-old Navaro Brown, had arrived at the hospital in full cardiac arrest. Doctors brought him out of it. But they couldn’t save him from a second heart attack later that day.

As a police officer, Llera is accustomed to closing cases; somebody raped that woman or robbed that bank. But how do you blame a bridge?

“I have nowhere to look,” said Llera, a two-year Sweetwater veteran. “I just felt like the bad guy won this time. The gentleman was taken from us.”

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Alberto Arias and Osvoldo Gonzalez, a longtime couple who co-owned a party planning business, died together when their truck was pancaked under the rubble. Facebook

As the day wore on, there were increasing signs that shock, denial and anger were starting to give way to acceptance and grief. In some sections of the collapsed bridge, the dust settled as police stopped trying to heave aside the cement slabs and began patrolling them with dogs and high-tech listening devices. And Marc Rubin, the sale director of Levitt Weinstein Chapel, publicly offered free funeral arrangements for the victims.

“We do it for policemen who die in the line of duty or firefighters,” Rubin said. “We can surely do it for the lay person who dies tragically.”

By dusk, the crowds of relatives looking for missing loved ones had dwindled to a desperate few, who watched as small police teams continued probing the wreckage under the unnatural glare of flood lights. Their requests were poignant and painful. A band of college-age friends, not long after midnight, asked if cops couldn’t make one more search for the still-missing Alexa Duran.

“Can you just check make one more check?” called out one young woman. “And if you see her, tell her that her mom is here?”

The police wouldn’t see Duran until sometime just after 5 p.m. on Saturday, when her SUV was finally pulled from the rubble and she was found inside, confirming the subtle message that police sent about 15 hours earlier, when they relabeled their work at the bridge from “search and rescue” to “search and recovery.”

***

If anything, news of the tragedy spread even faster outside the Miami area. The hashtag #FIUbridge broke out across Twitter, and a startling number of Miamians learned of the collapse from relatives in Cuba, calling to see if they were all right.

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FIU President Mark Rosenberg, who rushed home from Washington D.C., after the bridge came down, later said the university ‘followed all proper procedures’ on the bridge project. Sebastian Ballestas sballestas@miamiherald.com

FIU President Mark Rosenberg, cloistered in a meeting 1,100 miles in Washington with three Cabinet secretaries (including Alex Acosta, the former FIU dean tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the Labor Department), was stonefaced when his muted cellphone kept vibrating. He was not about to interrupt the meeting to answer it. Finally an aide handed him a note: “The bridge collapsed.”

“It didn’t quite initially compute. The bridge?” Rosenberg recalled. “I thought: ‘No.’ But then the phone kept vibrating. I knew something was up.” After Rosenberg gathered his papers and left the Labor Department conference room, he caught a 3:30 commercial flight out of Reagan National. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a part-time FIU professor, was on the plane, too.

Not everybody got a quick heads up, though. Jorge Mesa, a 31-year-old content strategist for the Center for Leadership at Florida International University, was busy in his office, and somehow no one mentioned the bridge collapse to him until later in the afternoon. He was stunned.

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Shocked and somber, members of the FIU community held a vigil to remember the six dead six days after the bridge collapse. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

That morning, driving to work just before 9 a.m., Mesa had pulled up under the bridge to wait for a traffic light. Pleased with the brisk morning weather, Mesa had rolled down the windows of his Mercedez Benz SUV and lowered the music.

And then he heard it: an audible crack, sharp and disquieting. “I see a [construction] worker; he looks up at the bridge and he gives me this face,” Mesa said later; the face, he thought, of someone who knows something’s not quite right.

There is no proof that the noise had anything to do with the rain of concrete that would follow a few hours later. “It could have been a coincidence,” Mesa said. “But I’m still gonna count my blessings.”

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Carli Teproff, Monique O. Madan, Howard Cohen and Andres Viglucci helped report this story.

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