Rubio says engineers were tightening loose cables when the FIU bridge collapsed

Senator Marco Rubio speaks during a press conference at FIU Health Ambulatory Care Center on Thursday.
Senator Marco Rubio speaks during a press conference at FIU Health Ambulatory Care Center on Thursday. sballestas@miamiherald.com

Engineers were tightening cables on the pedestrian bridge connecting Florida International University to the city of Sweetwater when the structure fell onto Southwest Eighth Street Thursday afternoon, killing at least six, according to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

The information, which Rubio tweeted late Thursday, could be crucial to determining why the bridge fell, crushing cars and people below, although Rubio’s office said Friday that he was not claiming to know the reason for the deadly accident. Other sources, including the mayor of Miami-Dade County, say that workers had conducted a stress test on the bridge earlier in the day.

“The cables that suspend the #Miami bridge had loosened & the engineering firm ordered that they be tightened,” Rubio tweeted after 11 p.m. “They were being tightened when it collapsed today.”

The structure was designed to include stabilizing cables attached to a tapered, 109-foot pylon near the center of the bridge. But the pylon had not yet been erected, so any cables being tightened Thursday were likely wires that, according to design documents submitted as part of the winning proposal, run through the 30-foot-wide, 950-ton span that fell.

Rubio’s spokeswoman said the senator learned the information from several workers on site.

The senator, who is from Miami-Dade County and teaches a Florida International University political science class, traveled to Miami from Washington D.C. on the same plane that FIU president Mark Rosenberg took back home Thursday, and spent hours at the scene of the collapse in west Miami-Dade with homicide and National Transportation Safety Board investigators. He also spoke that afternoon with Pedro Munilla, a principal for MCM Construction, the contractor on the project, but says he didn’t ask about what caused the crash.

“Those guys were shaken over there,” Rubio said Thursday. “There was not an opportunity to get into that.”

It’s unclear if Rubio has discussed what he learned with investigators. Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said Friday morning that he couldn’t confirm reports about the stress test, or Rubio’s information.

“That’s a question you’re going to have to ask the U.S. senator,” Perez said.

The bridge, while funded primarily through a federal grant and elevated over a state road, was overseen by FIU and undertaken by Miami’s MCM and Tallahassee’s Figg Bridge Group. The partners used an accelerated bridge-construction technique to erect the walkway Saturday over the roadway, using a “self-propelled modular transporter” to move a pre-constructed 175-foot concrete slab into place.

It’s also unclear if Rubio, who visited the injured Friday at Kendall Regional Medical Center, was referring to the stress testing that, according to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, took place earlier in the day, before the collapse. Stress testing typically involves placing carefully calibrated weights on the span and measuring how the structure responds to ensure it’s within safe parameters.

Elected officials are often well positioned to receive early information, but they aren’t always accurate. Immediately after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Rubio’s counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson, gave an interview that the shooter pulled a fire alarm, wore a gas mask and tossed smoke bombs — information that either turned out to be incorrect or not entirely clear.