No one seemed to notice when a large white crane that had been working at the doomed Florida International University bridge lurched away down Tamiami Trail shortly after the span collapsed. There was a disaster to respond to: Mountains of concrete. Horribly mangled cars. Dead and injured people.
It wasn't until some time later that authorities began wondering what happened to the crane and its operator, a close eyewitness who might help the investigation into the collapse. But he, and the crane, were gone.
"He drove away in the crane and nobody stopped him," said Carl Robertson, 73, a homeless man who lives near the site of the bridge. Robertson was right there and saw it fall down. He was the first person to call 911, using his aging cell phone.
Photos and video taken immediately after the March 15 accident show the crane — rented from a Sweetwater firm called George's Crane — still present on the downed bridge’s northwest side. When a Miami Herald photographer took a wide-frame aerial shot of the disaster about an hour later, the crane was nowhere in sight.
As the public tries to piece together what happened that chaotic day — at a time when government entities investigating the collapse have squeezed shut the flow of crucial information — the crane has become a source of speculation for amateur sleuths and online theorists. Readers asked the Herald: What was the crane doing and where did it go? In the absence of official explanations, some even wondered if the crane itself could have bumped the 950-ton bridge and caused the catastrophe. Did the operator then flee the scene in the most ungainly of getaway vehicles?
Here is what is known: Police don't seem to believe the crane man fled the scene or caused the collapse, which independent engineers suspect was the result of structural and design flaws. They say the unidentified operator drove the crane a short distance away and stuck around to offer help — but for how long isn't clear.
The crane — with the name "George's" emblazoned prominently on the boom — had been used to lift a piece of equipment for adjusting the span's internal steel supports around the time the bridge came crashing down at 1:47 p.m., killing six people.
Robertson was a short distance west at his encampment.
Within minutes of the bridge coming down, Robertson said, the crane's operator jumped out of the cab to untie a strand of caution tape that police coming from nearby FIU and Sweetwater had quickly anchored on the machine as they rushed to save lives. Then he started up his rig and rumbled west down Tamiami and out of sight.
"I didn't think about it until later that day," Robertson said of the crane's disappearance. "I didn't have my wits about me because they were pulling people out."
Although he was the first person to call 911, police recordings show, he says the cops never followed up to take a formal interview.
After the Herald published a piece last week on FIU engineers discovering potentially problematic cracks in the bridge days before the collapse, Robertson called reporters to recount his story — and to ask if anyone had figured out where the crane and the crane man went.
A lawyer for George's Crane — which rents hydraulic cranes as large as 170 tons — offered an explanation to the Herald.
Far from fleeing, the operator needed to move the lumbering contraption out of the way, said the attorney, Bryant Blevins. Rescuers had shown up right away.
"The emergency vehicles needed access," Blevins said. "They were getting there pretty quickly after the collapse. At that point, he had to move the crane."
So, Blevins said, the crane man drove the boom mounted on a six-wheel trailer out of the way and then — what time exactly Blevins couldn't say — took it about 30 blocks north to the George's Crane lot in Sweetwater. That's where the crane stayed.
The operator, however, returned to the scene "later that night" and was interviewed by police and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency that investigates on-the-job accidents, according to Blevins.
A spokesman for OSHA declined to comment. The public knows very little about why the bridge came down. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the cause of the accident, has forbidden the release of potentially critical public records that might shed some light. The Herald is suing the Florida Department of Transportation to compel their release.
George Bremer, who owns the crane company, could not be reached.
Whatever happened, the operator's behavior is puzzling — and angers some attorneys who are involved in the case and learned of the crane's disappearance independently of the Herald.
"Why would he leave the scene?" asked Alan Goldfarb, who is representing the family of Alexa Duran, an FIU student crushed to death in her vehicle during the collapse. "It doesn't make any sense. ... How could you remove equipment from an investigative scene?"
The Miami-Dade Police Department, which is investigating the deaths as homicides, has its own version of where the crane and the crane man went.
Capt. Alex Acosta says investigators believe the operator simply drove a few hundred feet from the collapsed bridge, parking the machine nearby.
"He moved it right there on site, off to the side," Acosta said. "He must have just got nervous."
The captain said the man — whose name the department is not willing to release — then went back to the accident scene to "render aid."
After that, he went home. But police figured out who he was and got in touch.
"He came back voluntarily [to the scene] and was interviewed," Acosta said.
The crane operator spoke willingly with police, according to Acosta, and no action was taken against him.