Family wants answers for loved one injured in bridge collapse
When Kevin Hanson noticed that the thin cracks veining a crucial connection in the Florida International University bridge had opened into gaping fissures, he pulled out his phone and snapped a few photographs.
It was March 10, 2018, the day the prefabricated bridge had been raised over a busy commuter road.
Hanson, a worker on the site, passed the photos up the chain of command, his lawyers say.
Three days later, the project’s chief engineer reported the cracks to the Florida Department of Transportation, although the engineer said he and his team were “not concerned about it.”
In the end, no one gave the order to shut down Southwest Eighth Street.
And so, when the bridge came crashing down on March 15, 2018, precisely one year ago, Hanson was standing on top. He and other workers had been tightening internal steel rods running through the damaged section of the bridge. The men had no idea the delicate operation could bring the dangerously unstable structure hurtling down in a lethal avalanche of metal and concrete.
Five people waiting in idling cars beneath the 174-foot concrete span were crushed to death. Hanson’s colleague, a Jamaican immigrant named Navaro Brown, who had also been standing on the bridge, died, too.
Hanson survived — just barely.
Rescuers managed to dig the 39-year-old father of four out of the rubble. He was rushed to the hospital and placed in a medically induced coma. He had suffered serious brain damage and was “severely paralyzed” for several months, according to medical records included in court filings.
“It was very hard to see him like that, just lying in the bed, not able to talk,” said Kimberly Babbitt, Hanson’s partner of 14 years and mother of three of his children.
“We didn’t know how much of Kevin we were going to get back,” Babbitt said, sitting on her couch at her mother’s home near Tampa, with her eyes fixed on a framed family photo from the time before the bridge brought her life crashing down with it.
Her hands trembled as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue: “We still don’t.”
About five months ago Hanson “emerged” from his coma, a medical term used to describe a person who has “returned to spontaneous breathing, voluntary swallowing, and normal consciousness.”
Despite that milestone, Hanson is having to “relearn everything. Like a baby; like an infant,” Babbitt said.
He doesn’t remember what happened to him.
“We haven’t told him that the bridge fell,” she said. ”We just refer to it as ‘the accident.’ ”
Hanson’s family — riven by the legal difficulties of caring for someone who can no longer care for himself — still has few answers about why the bridge fell and why obvious warning signs of its imminent failure were ignored.
The Miami Herald attempted to interview Terry and Randy Hanson, who serve as their son’s guardian, but their lead legal counsel declined formal requests. Babbitt has sought in court to be appointed in their stead.
It is unclear who ordered the workers onto the bridge to tighten the rods — which were meant to provide added support — or why they were doing so. A federal investigation into the deadly accident is expected to present its findings in the late summer or early fall. That probe was put on hold during the partial federal government shutdown.
Tightening the rods — possibly in an effort to close up the cracks — was a disastrous mistake, according to David Beck, a bridge engineering expert who has studied the collapse for the Miami Herald.
“That’s what caused the catastrophe,” Beck said. “It’s the smoking gun.”
At least 18 lawsuits have been filed against 25 defendants involved in the bridge project, although the cases have been consolidated before one judge. More than 50 lawyers attended a recent hearing.
“Despite the best efforts of the court and some of the lawyers, the case is moving at a glacial pace,” said Gary Fox, Babbitt’s attorney. “This delay has prevented any form of closure and has been emotionally and spiritually draining.”
Winsome Campbell, widow of bridge worker Navaro Brown, said she wants one thing: justice.
“I want to know who is responsible for knowing that the bridge had the cracks and making all those workers still work on the bridge,” Campbell said. “Who left that road open for people to drive and die underneath?”
The phone Hanson used to photograph the cracks is now at the center of its own legal mess.
Babbitt’s attorneys had it. Everyone else wanted it. The photos Hanson took appear to be different from the ones released by the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the collapse.
Lawyers for the Hanson family and Babbitt — as well as for the biological mother of Hanson’s fourth child — have squabbled over who should have the right to the phone.
Last month, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey called it a “dog fight,” terming the matter “ridiculous.” She ordered the lawyers to hand over the phone, which she said could contain important evidence, to an independent forensic expert.
“If Kevin Hanson was taking pictures or texting anything about the bridge, it should be made available to everyone in this case,” the judge said during a Feb. 22 hearing.
Less than a week later, the phone was handed to a computer forensics investigator in Weston, court records indicate.
“At this time, the court has substantial question as to whether essential information regarding this case resides on the phone and has not been disclosed nearly a year into this litigation,” Judge Bailey wrote in a court order.
Long road home
Around 4 a.m. on the day of the collapse, Hanson kissed Babbitt goodbye to make the trek from Lutz, in Hillsborough County, to Miami.
It was his second day working on the bridge.
“I didn’t want him to go back down there,” she said in a shaky voice. “I knew about the cracks and it made me nervous.”
After the collapse — which injured an additional seven people — Hanson spent three weeks in a hospital in Miami.
On April 3, he was transferred to a facility in Atlanta that specializes in treating brain and spinal injuries. He was fed through a tube and developed a urinary tract infection and a severe bed sore.
Awake but unable to talk, he languished.
By August, he remained unable to communicate his needs. Sometimes he recognized his children. Sometimes he didn’t. At night, he had to be restrained because he would get out of bed and hurt himself.
“His brain is still cloudy and he doesn’t know what is going on,” his father, Randy Hanson, testified in a Georgia court last year.
On Oct. 3, he was moved to a rehabilitation center in Sarasota. His grasp of the past improved. He began remembering friends. But he still couldn’t keep track of his medicines or walk. He needed a catheter. His father parked his trailer near the rehab center and lived there so he could spend time with his son. His mother came to visit on weekends.
Now it is the simple things that keep him going.
He plays the children’s game Hungry Hungry Hippos with his 2-year-old daughter, Bailey, while his 8-, 13- and 15-year-old sons — Brice, Clayton and Malachi — cheer them on. He uses a wheelchair.
“It’s like they are in the same stage of life, so I try to do things that would benefit them both at the same time,” Babbitt said.
Other tasks Babbitt squeezes in to stimulate his mind between her commutes from north Tampa to Sarasota multiple times a week include papier-mâché crafts, Legos, and tossing a mini ball into a toddler’s basketball hoop. The couple’s elder sons switched over to virtual school to spend more time with their father.
“My children have their daddy, but don’t have their daddy at the same time,” she said. “He’s still with us, but not with us. So many parts of him have been stolen and remain missing.”
“He was a bridge builder. His father built bridges, and he followed in his footsteps,” Babbitt said of her partner. “Kevin was always building stuff. He was a hands-on father with a big imagination. He loved to create.”
In an emailed statement, Hanson’s employer, Structural Technologies, told the Miami Herald that it “cannot comment as to their specific actions or knowledge leading up to this tragic event” because of the ongoing investigation.
The Maryland-based firm, which specializes in so-called post-tensioning work that reinforces concrete, was one of many subcontractors working on the project.
“From the moment of learning of the collapse, Structural Technologies has provided both moral and financial support to Kevin Hanson and his family,” the statement continued. “Kevin is a part of the [Structural] family and his injuries have deeply affected the entire company.”
The FIU project was led by Miami firm Munilla Construction Management, which recently filed for bankruptcy, and Tallahassee-based FIGG Bridge Group. In statements to the Herald, both firms expressed condolences to victims. Florida International University will hold a moment of silence in honor of the victims at 1:47 p.m., the time the bridge fell.
“Our FIU family will never forget,” said FIU President Mark Rosenberg in a statement. “Our hearts are heavy.”
The university did not make Rosenberg available for an interview.
Without answers, other families of the dead are grieving, too.
Replaying the sound of her husband’s voice over and over again is the only way that Winsome Campbell, Brown’s widow, gets by.
Brown would send his wife spontaneous voice messages through WhatsApp, but the one he sent her the day before the bridge fell brings her heart to a standstill.
“I’m here on the job, baby doll, here on the job,” he says. “But I just wanted you to know, your husband loves you very much. And take good care of yourself, OK? Until I talk to you. Love you. They are killing me with work up here, you know, as usual. But I’m just working so we can get by. OK darling? Love you.”
Brown was actually in Orlando on a different construction site when he sent the message. Campbell said his managers called him that night and asked him to drive to Miami to work on the FIU bridge.
“It was his first day on the job,” she said. “And his last.”
Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.