Nearly two months after a brand-new South Florida bridge collapsed onto a busy roadway — killing six people — the Florida Department of Transportation is still refusing to release documents that could shed light on the tragic accident.
Now, the Miami Herald is taking the state to court. On Wednesday, the Herald filed suit against FDOT in Tallahassee's Leon County Circuit Court to compel the release of emails, meeting minutes and other records relating to the bridge's design and construction.
"These records are critical to helping us understand how this tragedy occurred and what can be done to prevent a similar incident in the future," Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald's executive editor, said in a statement.
The Florida International University bridge came crashing down at 1:47 p.m. March 15. Days earlier, cracks had been observed in the $14.3 million structure. On the morning of the collapse, FIU held a two-hour meeting with its engineers and FDOT to discuss whether the cracks presented a safety risk. The Miami Herald requested records from that meeting, as well as other relevant documents.
But FDOT says it can release only those records created on or before Feb. 19, citing instructions from the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency investigating the collapse. It's not clear whether the cracks led the 950-ton pedestrian bridge to fall.
FDOT says it lost the right to share public records with the news media when it agreed on March 17 to become a party to the NTSB's ongoing investigation. The state says NTSB has ordered it not to release documents from after Feb. 19. FIU and the city of Sweetwater, which was also involved in the project, have claimed the same exemption from Florida's broad public records laws. The parties have released records to the media earlier than the cut-off date.
In a statement, Tom Yu, FDOT's deputy communications director, said it has asked the Florida attorney general's office for a legal opinion on whether the records should remain confidential. That opinion is pending.
“Despite weeks of productive conversations and good faith work by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Miami Herald today chose to file a lawsuit requesting the release of records involving an ongoing investigation which have been deemed by the National Transportation Safety Board to be confidential," Yu wrote. "FDOT has been advised by the NTSB that the Department would be breaking federal law by fully fulfilling the Miami Herald’s request. ... FDOT maintains its belief that these records are public and has said so in both its conversations with the Herald and in the letter to [Florida's attorney general]."
Christopher O'Neil, a spokesman for the NTSB, said there was an "investigative need" to prevent evidence from after Feb. 19 becoming public.
"We have committed to periodically review the outstanding requests and authorize the release of information as soon as possible," O'Neil said.
Attorneys for some of the victims and survivors of the bridge collapse say that the records should be made public now.
"The family wants to know as much as we can," said Miami attorney Alan Goldfarb, who is representing the family of Alexa Duran, 18, an FIU student killed beneath the bridge. "Trying to hide behind the NTSB shield is not being forthcoming. There’s no reason why all the records up until the moment the bridge collapsed should not be released."
Goldfarb called the Feb. 19 cut-off "arbitrary."
Stuart Grossman, who is representing survivor Richie Humble, said the bridge was "bought and paid for" with public funds — and that means the public has an immediate right to know what went wrong.
"The government is the sum part of its citizens, and these were its citizens lying dead and badly injured as a result of this catastrophe," Grossman said.
Contractors working for FIU designed and built the bridge. Although Gov. Rick Scott distanced the state from the project immediately after the disaster, FDOT officials attended regular planning meetings, helped approve the design-build team and had input on the bridge's design and location. The bridge was designed by Tallahassee-based FIGG Bridge Group and built by a major Miami firm, Munilla Construction Management.