The I-95 barrier that gave way to a garbage truck and sent it plunging to a Miami park below represents an older version of bridge design that does not comply with how that 1969 barricade would be built today, a senior transportation official said Tuesday.
Though older, the elevated off-ramp’s design of multiple concrete posts supporting a single beam is considered safe and did not violate state standards when the truck slammed clear through the concrete bulwark Monday afternoon, said Dennis Fernandez, administrator of structures maintenance for the Florida Department of Transportation’s Miami district.
But the design would not comply with the most recent requirements for new barriers, which are solid and lack the gaps between posts found in the barricade that was breached on the elevated southbound exit that links I-95 with Southwest Seventh Street, Fernandez said.
“If we designed a bridge today, or if we retrofitted that bridge in the future, most likely it would be a solid railing,” he said. “We’re always trying to improve the safety and make it more resistant to impact. That’s the reason we changed the criteria.”
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Fernandez emphasized that he didn’t think any design standards employed on Florida highways could withstand certain high-speed impacts by the kind of heavy-load truck that Kaseem Smith was driving south on I-95 sometime around 5 p.m. Monday. The highway administrator said the trajectory, speed and other factors of the crash would help unravel the mystery of how the railing came to fail and cause the stunning 80-foot fall into Jose Marti Park that somehow left Smith alive and injured nobody else.
“I’ve been doing this job for 30 years,” Fernandez said. “I’ve seen many vehicles hit the railing on 95. I’ve never seen such an impact. There’s nothing similar to this.”
Monday’s crash has city officials trying to piece together Smith’s actions before impact, and reconcile the chilling images of a multi-ton vehicle falling from the sky into a park usually filled with children swimming, playing and being cared for in a popular after-school program. The crash occurred on the Presidents Day holiday, leaving most of Jose Marti idle. The city garbage truck landed on two unoccupied cars outside the community center where the after-school program for about 100 kids is housed.
“Words fail me except to say we are blessed,” said Rosa Maria Plasencia, CEO of Amigos for Kids, which runs the program at Jose Marti, which sits at 362 SW Fourth St.
So far, police have offered no clues as to the cause of the crash and said nothing to suggest Smith was at fault behind the wheel. Smith’s family also declined interview requests as the 32-year-old remained at Jackson Memorial Hospital with a fractured skull and several broken bones. “He's still under heavy sedation. I haven't been able to speak to him as of right now. We're hopeful for the best,” said Joe Simmons, president of AFSCME Local 871, which represents Smith. “It's a miracle that he's still breathing.”
Surveillance technology installed to monitor the driving habits of city garbage-truck operators could offer a detailed examination of what happened before Smith’s crash, which ended with the southbound truck facing north in Jose Marti. But city officials cautioned Tuesday that Smith’s truck was so badly damaged in the fall that the so-called “black box” may not function properly.
In November 2014, the city of Miami spent $180,000 experimenting with Drivecam, a dual camera system inside the cabs of sanitation vehicles that also monitors speed and fuel consumption. By last December, 142 trucks had been outfitted with the system at cost of almost $500,000 to the city over four years.
The system records video and audio on a constant loop, and also tracks speed, fuel consumption and other factors.
Background material given to city commissioners before they approved the system said the technology was purchased “in an effort to reduce injuries and collisions.” A six-month test period of the equipment noted a decrease in garbage-truck accidents and cellphone use while driving.
At an afternoon press conference at City Hall, Miami officials said Smith was alone in a side-loading truck that empties cans with an automated arm. Mario Nunez, Miami’s solid-waste director, said Smith’s truck was finishing up a recycling run and was about three-quarters full, holding as much as four tons of refuse. Nunez said Smith had a good driving record “relatively speaking” and has worked for Miami the last nine years.
Nunez said the city was rushing the truck’s surveillance device to the vendor’s headquarters in San Diego, in hopes both the footage and other data can be salvaged.
As investigators continued their probe, state highway workers planned on reopening the elevated off-ramp Tuesday. The plan was to allow traffic to use one lane, with the other closed to protect construction crews repairing the breached barrier. A Transportation spokeswoman said the work should be completed by Friday, and the original fencepost design will be used for the replacement.
That design has concrete posts supporting a horizontal beam that forms the top of the rail. Fernandez, the FDOT administrator, said the current design requires a solid barrier, without the gaps present in the earlier specifications. But the older design does not compromise safety, Fernandez said, and there are no plans to retrofit the crash site with the more up-to-date barriers.
“The department strongly feels that those bridges are safe,” Fernandez said of the “many” elevated ramps and bridges with fencepost-style railings. “If something is unsafe, believe me, that bridge would not be open to traffic.” He added that even the most up-to-date barrier design “does not guarantee that a large, heavy vehicle hitting at a certain angle won’t destroy the wall.”
Photos from the accident show black skid marks leading to the breached barrier as Smith appeared to slam the brakes to avoid impact. But no hint as to what caused him to veer right off the road.
“We can’t figure it out,” Alfonso said. “There are skid marks, but no other vehicle was involved.”
Smith’s garbage truck was removed from the park Monday night. Jose Marti was expected to mostly reopen Wednesday. But the park's pool building will likely remain closed, due to damage caused by falling concrete that slammed through the roof, but didn't penetrate the building's ceiling.
Monday’s crash offered a scary reminder of the I-95 barrier’s role in protecting Jose Marti Park from highway dangers above. The garbage truck landed in a parking area that opens to a playground and connects the community center with the pool house. Miami’s Parks Department released information estimating the park’s activity on a normal school day at the time of the crash: after-school care until 6 p.m., and both Learn to Swim and Swim Team Practice until 8 p.m. The after-school program ordinarily starts at 2:30 p.m. and runs until 6 p.m.
“We are grateful to God that no parents, kids, other park visitors or anyone else was injured in this incident,” said Miami Parks Director Kevin Kirwin. “On a normal day, there would have been a lot more users around this area of the park.”
Miami Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.