FIU pedestrian bridge collapse: What went wrong?

Sweetwater mayor: FIU student among those killed

SWEETWATER, Fla. – As authorities work to identify the people who died in Thursday's pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University, state and federal investigators will begin the task of figuring out how and why the five-day-old span failed.

Miami-Dade police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta said Friday at least six people are dead after the bridge connecting FIU to the neighboring city of Sweetwater crumbled onto Southwest Eighth Street, crushing eight vehicles caught beneath the rubble.

Zabaleta said 10 people were taken to Kendall Regional Medical Center. He said one of the victims later died at the hospital.

Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez said one of the victims who died was a student at FIU, but he couldn't confirm whether the student lived in his city.

The $14.2 million pedestrian bridge was supposed to open in 2019 as a safe way for students to cross the busy thoroughfare. The 174-foot span was assembled off-site by Munilla Construction Management and moved into place last weekend.

MCM is the subject of a lawsuit related to a "makeshift bridge" at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. In October 2016, a Transportation Security Administration worker fell while walking along the bridge when it "broke under [his] weight."

However, MCM said in a statement that there was no bridge or temporary bridge that the company was working on at the airport. MCM said the so-called bridge was actually a piece of plywood that was covering a sidewalk under construction at the airport. 

Still, the TSA worker's attorney, Tesha Allison, said her client was seriously injured.

"He had to walk through it, on it, to get to the restroom, and the minute he stepped on it, it broke beneath him," she said.

Allison said her client, Jose Perez, suffered broken bones and a herniated disc. He is suing for $15,000.

According to the Florida Department of Transportation, the designer, contractor and inspector for the pedestrian bridge were hired by FIU.

"Under the terms of the procurement issued by FIU and due to the unique characteristics of the design of the bridge, an independent, secondary design check was required," FDOT spokesman Dick Kane said in an email. "Under this project, it is the responsibility of FIU's design build team to select the firm used to conduct the independent, secondary review. The firm selected, Louis Berger, was not FDOT pre-qualified for this service, which is required under FIU's agreement with the state."

FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg said he was aware of the claim and investigating it.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said these kind of industrial cases are "really far and few between."

"It's a very difficult standard to prove a crime happened, and that's why usually the civil arena are places for seeking of justice and administrative arena, because people may be fired because they failed to do something that should've been done," she said. 

Fernandez Rundle didn't rule out the possibility of charges being filed, but said that it's nearly impossible to prove that someone specifically was at fault in criminal court. Still, she said she will be reviewing all evidence. 

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Dave Downey said Thursday night that his team was using high-tech listening devices, trained sniffing dogs and search cameras in a race to find survivors. However, by early Friday, the focus had shifted from rescue to recovery.

Although Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said a team from State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office is on site to assist with the homicide investigation, he said it doesn't necessarily mean that criminal charges are forthcoming.

"We're not there yet," Perez said.

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt said investigators were planning to get a detailed look at the site later in the afternoon. He said the NTSB is conducting an independent investigation that is "not in any way related" to "possible criminal charges."

"Our entire purpose for being here is to find out what happened so that we can keep it from happening again," Sumwalt said.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said on Twitter that the cables suspending the bridge had been loosened and were being tightened at the time of the collapse.

However, Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp said it hasn't been confirmed whether a stress test had been ordered.

Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Alex Camacho said Southwest Eighth Street will remain closed indefinitely between Southwest 107th Avenue and Southwest 117th Avenue.


About the Authors: