Florida Sen. Bill Nelson sent a letter Friday to the federal agency investigating the Florida International University bridge collapse demanding that it drop legal actions preventing the release of public records concerning the deadly accident.
In the letter, Nelson told the National Transportation Safety Board that blocking the release of the records, sought by the Miami Herald and other media outlets, was “appalling” and “not in the interest of public safety.”
“The victims’ families and the public need to know what steps regulators did or did not take to ensure the safe construction of the FIU pedestrian bridge,” wrote Nelson, a Democrat being challenged by Gov. Rick Scott for reelection.
Additionally, Nelson pointed to cracks discovered in other bridges around Florida, including one in Pensacola Bay, saying the FIU bridge disaster “could serve as a cautionary tale for other federally funded bridge projects in Florida that may involve inadequate supervision.”
Christopher O’Neil, a spokesman for the NTSB, said Friday that the agency had “received Senator Nelson’s letter and will respond to him.”
Other Florida politicians reached Monday by the Herald said that they look forward to the release of the bridge records, but none expressed a willingness to make demands of the federal agency.
The FIU bridge fell March 15, killing six people. Alarming cracks had been discovered in the days before the collapse, but Southwest Eighth Street, which runs under the span, was not closed. The bridge had been raised into place on March 10.
The Herald sued the Florida Department of Transportation in May for records that might explain why the road was not shut down, including minutes of a meeting held the morning of the collapse. The NTSB had instructed FDOT not to release the records, saying their publication could threaten the effectiveness of its investigation.
A state court ordered the release of the documents Tuesday, ruling that they should be available for inspection under Florida’s broad public-records law. But on Thursday the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern Florida, acting for the NTSB, asked a federal court to take over the case and suspend that decision. A federal judge agreed to a stay after an emergency telephonic hearing, meaning the records will remain hidden from the public until a new ruling is issued by the federal court.
McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for Gov. Scott, pointed out that FDOT has said it believes the records are public and that FDOT was prepared to release them Thursday in accordance with the state court’s order until the federal court stepped in at NTSB’s request.
“Federal investigators have prevented that,” he said of any release at this time.
Scott’s office did not immediately respond when asked whether Scott might send a letter similar to Nelson’s to the NTSB.
Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents the FIU area, called the bridge collapse a tragedy and said the congressman hopes all parties will be held accountable.
“The congressman appreciates that FDOT has already stated their desire to release the records to the public, and he hopes NTSB will cooperate to make that happen as swiftly as possible,” Rodriguez wrote in a statement.
Asked whether the lawmaker might petition NTSB to permit a release, she sent an additional email: “Unfortunately, Senator Nelson did not reach out to work with the congressman on this, which is disappointing given FIU is in our district and we would have been eager to build a bipartisan coalition to urge NTSB to stop hindering FDOT’s release of the records. Our office did reach out to NTSB asking for more information about why the records can’t be released and made them aware of the congressman’s preference for transparency.”
Rodriguez did not respond to a request to share a copy of the interaction with NTSB.
Patty Hurtado de Mendoza, the press secretary for Miami-Dade’s mayor, Carlos Gimenez, provided the following response: “The FIU bridge collapse happened on a state road, not a county road. The agreement for construction was between the state and FIU. The county had nothing to do with it. I would suggest contacting FDOT and FIU.”
The following elected officials did not respond to inquiries from the Miami Herald: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio; state Rep. Daniel Perez and state Sen. Anitere Flores, both of whom represent the FIU area; and Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez, whose city borders the campus.
Engineering experts consulted by the Herald said the cracks in a key support truss were a sign of the bridge’s imminent structural failure. They said the road should have been shut down after the cracks were discovered.