For drivers traveling down Miami’s Tamiami Trail on Thursday, March 15, 2018, it must have seemed like any other day. Little did the motorists know, however, that a horrendous scene was about to befall them. Indeed, seemingly without warning, a still under-construction footbridge collapsed. Hundreds of tons of concrete fell on to the six-lane highway beneath, crushing vehicles and claiming multiple lives. And now dash-cam footage of the catastrophe has surfaced online – and it is heartrending and horrific to watch.
In what can only be described as tragic irony, the pedestrian bridge was actually commissioned because of another heartbreaking incident. In August 2017, 18-year-old Florida International University – or FIU – student Alexis Dale died after being struck by a vehicle while crossing nearby 8th Street. And in an attempt to prevent such a tragedy befalling another of their students, university officials decided to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
Consequently, FIU commissioned FIGG Bridge Group to design a $14.2-million footbridge over the Tamiami Trail. The walkway was intended to make the university campus more easily accessible from the Sweetwater neighborhood, which is a popular residence for many of the university’s students.
However, to avoid blocking the highway for a significant period of time, FIGG and erection firm Munilla Construction Management used a process called Accelerated Bridge Construction – or ABC. Theoretically, this would speed up construction of the bridge while making it more cost-effective. And because the main span of the 174-foot bridge would be built separately, then hoisted on to supports, the Tamiami Trail could remain open throughout.
According to FIU, the bridge was planned to stand for a century, and be strong enough to weather a category-five hurricane. Indeed, Atorod Azizinamini, the university’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department chair, was full of pride when he spoke to the press on the day the footbridge was hoisted into place. Speaking on Saturday, March 10, 2018, Azizinamini said, “This project is an outstanding example of the ABC method. Building the major element of the bridge – its main span superstructure – outside of the traveled way and away from busy 8th Street is a milestone.”
But just three days later, the “outstanding” footbridge was already displaying some worrying signs. Indeed, one FIGG engineer spotted a crack in the concrete on the north side of the span. In a voicemail message left for an officer at the Florida Department of Transportation, the FIGG employee said, “We’ve taken a look at it and… obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done.” Nevertheless, he declared that the firm did not consider it a safety issue “so we’re not concerned about it from that perspective.” Tragically, it would prove to be the wrong call…
In fact, engineers and officials from the Florida Department of Transportation, FIU, FIGG and Munilla Construction Management inspected the fault line for themselves two days later. On the morning of March 15, they collectively decided that, “the crack did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge,” according to a statement issued by the university. But just hours later that Thursday, the footbridge suddenly collapsed. And the harrowing catastrophe was caught in real time on the dash-mounted camera of a driver traveling the Tamiami Trail.
Indeed, the footage 23-second clip was uploaded to YouTube by user OfficialJoelF the day after the disaster. Soon after, the 23-second clip was well on its way to two million views. We see that as the dash-cam motorist reaches the footbridge location on the Tamiami Trail, nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. Traffic is backed up on the driver’s side of the road, and they slow down as they approach the tail end of the queue. But then, we see the bridge looming up ahead suddenly and shockingly crash down. In fact, the catastrophic collapse is so fast and abrupt that you could blink and miss it.
We see the worst of the damage occur on the opposite side of the road to the dash-cam driver, with the bridge dipping at the far end. As debris rolls down the tilted span and the dust clears, startled drivers begin to leap out of their cars. Indeed, they are clearly stunned by what has just happened in front of them, and they react in shock and disbelief.
Many of the witnesses are seen rushing forwards, presumably to come to the aid of those caught under the bridge. Yes, tragically, because of the queueing traffic, there were many people in vehicles sitting directly underneath the span when it collapsed. As the dash-cam footage rolls to a close, more and more cars pull up, with drivers and passengers emerging to help.
One of those at the disaster scene was Sergeant Jenna Mendez of Sweetwater Police Department. She immediately hurried from her car to the wrecked bridge and found four construction workers, all with terrible injuries. “I started yelling to civilians in the crowd, ‘Please get me doctors… I need help up here,’” she told the broadcaster CNN later that day. “A doctor jumped up, and she started helping.”
Meanwhile, another eye-witness to the awful events, Lynell Collins, also raced to join in the rescue attempts. But he felt that neither himself or any of the others on the highway were able to do enough. “We started helping people whose cars were at least half crushed and whoever was easily saved,” Collins explained to CNN. “But we couldn’t really go under any of the rubble because, at the time… the other half of the bridge is still kind of leaning upward.”
Sadly, despite the efforts of Mendez, Collins and other appalled onlookers, six people tragically lost their lives in the incident. In addition, several other road users were hospitalized due to their injuries. And, perhaps even more distressingly, several of those who died that Thursday could not be retrieved straight away. In fact, the bodies of some victims were unable to be removed from the debris until the Saturday.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the question on most people’s lips was “why?” After all, there had to be a reason – or reasons – behind the structure’s dramatic collapse. A review to determine what caused the fatal failure is underway. Nevertheless, some are already pointing to factors which may have been behind what went so badly wrong.
Indeed, Greg Batista, a structural engineer with more than two decades of experience, spoke to local Miami station 10News WTSP soon after the tragedy. He claimed one reason for it could have been the stress test that was apparently being performed on the bridge just before its collapse. Batista said, “The big red flag is, why was somebody conducting a test? The name ‘test’ in itself implies that there may be some sort of failure.”
According to the Miami Herald, construction workers had been tightening support cables on the bridge’s north side, replicating work already completed on the south side. Allegedly, it was when the crew moved to the second of these cables that the bridge collapsed. In the report from March 21, the newspaper also said that some external engineers had their own ideas. They speculated that this work may have been done in response to the cracks spotted on the bridge two days before.
Richard Hartzell, a bridge designer based in California, was quoted in the piece. “They’ll likely find a number of reasons or forces behind the cracking which started all this,” he told the Miami Herald. “The [cables] were the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back.’”
Nonetheless, it soon emerged that it was not the first time FIGG Bridge Group had been embroiled in controversy. Indeed, apparently a FIGG bridge in Virginia had collapsed during construction in 2012. Fortunately, however, it only fell on to railroad tracks, with no serious long-term consequences. But, according to the Miami New Times newspaper, the firm was still fined $28,000 after subsequently being found to have violated a number of safety rules.
FIGG released a press release in the aftermath of the FIU footbridge disaster. It said, “We are heartbroken by the loss of life and injuries, and are carefully examining the steps that our team has taken in the interest of our overarching concern for public safety.” The statement continued, “The evaluation was based on the best available information at that time and indicated that there were no safety issues.”
The review by the National Transportation Safety Board into the cause of the collapse – and the disastrous, heartrending consequences – continues. Indeed, how the FIU footbridge so catastrophically failed will undoubtedly be of pressing concern to the public. Not least, friends and family of the six who died from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And hopefully the dash-cam footage of the tragedy on the Tamiami Trail will be of great use to the investigation.