A federal judge Friday blocked the release of documents that could shed light on why a busy road outside Miami was not shut down before a brand-new bridge developing severe cracks collapsed and killed six people.
Judge William Stafford said the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the Florida International University bridge disaster, “was exercising its valid federal regulatory authority” in keeping the documents confidential from the media.
Stafford’s ruling essentially overturns a previous decision from a state court that would have released the records under Florida’s broad public records law. Stafford said the state court did not have proper jurisdiction to rule on the matter. His decision suggests federal jurisdiction over the accident preempts state law.
The documents in question include minutes and notes from a meeting held hours before the newly constructed pedestrian bridge fell down March 15. They are in the possession of the Florida Department of Transportation. The Miami Herald requested their release from FDOT after the collapse, but the NTSB ordered the state not to share the records, saying their publication could threaten the integrity of its probe.
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What was discussed in that meeting may prove crucial. The meeting was held because alarming cracks had developed in the span even before it was raised into place above Southwest Eighth Street. After the meeting, a construction crew clambered on top of the bridge to tighten steel rods running through the span. The workers were standing on the bridge when it came crashing down, and their actions may have caused the already over-stressed bridge to collapse, according to bridge engineering experts consulted by the Herald.
It’s not clear who decided the road should stay open during the construction work and why. FIU was the lead agency on the bridge project, which was meant to connect student housing in Sweetwater with its main campus and allow pedestrians to avoid a ground-level crossing of a road bustling with commuter traffic. The university was joined in a supporting role by FDOT, although the state has controversially tried to distance itself from the project. The meeting was attended by representatives of FIU, FDOT and contractors working on the bridge.
Without the records, answers aren’t likely to come soon: NTSB investigations generally take at least a year to conclude.
“This is a devastating decision that renders moot Florida’s public records law,” said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor. “We are extremely disappointed that the public will have to continue to wait for answers.”
The records could have been made public in August, when a state court ruled they should be released to the Herald. The newspaper had sued FDOT to obtain the documents.
The NTSB responded by taking the case to the U.S. District Court for the Northern Division of Florida and asking Stafford to quash, or declare invalid, the state court ruling.
The judge assented, ruling that because the state court order had such an impact on the NTSB’s investigation, the federal agency was essentially a party to the case, even though it was not named in the Herald’s lawsuit. In most cases, the federal government cannot be sued under the doctrine of “sovereign immunity.”
That meant the state court “lacked jurisdiction over the matter,” according to Stafford, a long-serving judge who was appointed to the bench by President Gerald Ford in 1975. His order denied the Herald’s request to send the case back to the state judge and dismissed it from federal court.
The Herald has the option to appeal.
Christopher O’Neil, a spokesman for the NTSB, said the ruling “affirms the protections for information that preserve the integrity of the NTSB’s investigative process.”
O’Neil said the agency will release evidence used in its determination of probable cause before it issues a final report.
“The Department respects and will follow Judge Stafford’s ruling,” said Ed Seifert, a spokesman for FDOT. “The Department has continually asserted the public records would have been produced if not for the restrictions imposed by the National Transportation Safety Board.”
FDOT — like FIU, the city of Sweetwater and several contractors — has become a formal “party” to the NTSB investigation, meaning the state agency is cooperating in the probe and must follow federal instructions.
The $14.2 million bridge was built on the side of Southwest Eighth Street in a process known as accelerated bridge construction, which is meant to lessen road closures. But it began developing cracks at its north end even before it was raised into place above the road on March 10. Once the bridge was in the air, the cracking grew significantly worse. A two-hour meeting was held March 15 to discuss the problem. But a senior engineer from the bridge’s design firm FIGG said the cracks were not a threat to the span’s structural integrity, according to accounts from FIU and FDOT.
The road stayed open and workers were sent to tighten rods running through the span, possibly in an attempt to close up the cracks. Shortly after, the bridge collapsed, killing five motorists and one worker. Several other people were injured.
A preliminary report from the NTSB highlighted the cracks. The NTSB investigation may ultimately help determine if keeping the road open was an act of negligence. If so, criminal charges could be filed, although Florida law sets a high bar for winning convictions in construction accidents. Several civil lawsuits have also been filed by victims’ families and survivors.
One federal agency has already weighed in on how much of a red flag the cracks should have been. According to an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, contractors that did not evacuate workers from the bridge because of the cracks violated worker-safety rules.
The federal agency fined five contractors a total of $86,658 for that and other violations last month.
Independent engineers consulted by the Herald said the cracks were the result of an apparent design flaw in the bridge. They said a key structural support could not bear the weight placed on it once the bridge was in the air, and that the cracks should have been a signal to stop work on the bridge and close the road.
When the workers put pressure on the span by tightening the rods, the experts believe, the entire structure collapsed.