MIAMI — Two days before a pedestrian bridge collapsed at Florida International University, killing at least six, an engineer with the company that designed the structure called the state to report cracks in the concrete span.
While it’s unclear if those cracks were a contributing factor to the catastrophic collapse Thursday, they were observed at the north end of the structure, which appeared to be the section that failed. The FIGG Bridge Group employee, Denney Pate, left a message with the Florida Department of Transportation Tuesday in which he acknowledged the structure needed to be repaired but dismissed the significance of the problem.
"Hey Tom, this is Denney Pate with FIGG bridge engineers. Calling to, uh, share with you some information about the FIU pedestrian bridge and some cracking that’s been observed on the north end of the span, the pylon end of that span we moved this weekend," Pate said, according to a transcript released Friday night by the FDOT.
"Um, so, uh, we’ve taken a look at it and, uh, obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done but from a safety perspective we don’t see that there’s any issue there so we’re not concerned about it from that perspective although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that. At any rate, I wanted to chat with you about that because I suspect at some point that’s gonna get to your desk. So, uh, at any rate, call me back when you can. Thank you. Bye."
The FDOT said the voicemail wasn’t heard by any of its employees until Friday, the day after the bridge fell.
"This voicemail was left on a landline and not heard by an FDOT employee until Friday, March 16 as the employee was out of the office on assignment," the department said in a late evening news release. "When the employee returned to his office today, Friday, March 16, he was able to listen to the voicemail."
An attempt to reach Florida International University spokeswoman Maydel Santana Bravo was not immediately successful.
Cracks are not unusual in concrete construction. They could be merely cosmetic, or potentially a sign of a more serious problem.
The information is the latest from the state asserting that FIU and its contractors, Munilla Construction Management and Figg, had overall responsibility for the project.
The FDOT also said Friday that it had issued a blanket permit allowing for two-lane closures effective from January through April, but never received a request to close the entire road and was unaware of any scheduled stress testing of the bridge, which Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez confirmed took place Saturday.
"Per standard safety procedure, FDOT would issue a permit for partial or full road closure if deemed necessary and requested by the FIU design build team or FIU contracted construction inspector for structural testing," the state said.
"The responsibility to identify and address life-safety issues and properly communicate them is the sole responsibility of the FIU design build team. At no point during any of the communications above did FIGG or any member of the FIU design build team ever communicate a life-safety issue."
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the collapse. It is not expected to issue formal findings for months, if not longer. The state and local police are also investigating.
Meanwhile at the scene of the crumpled 950-ton pedestrian bridge, rescuers worked through the night and morning to clear the rubble, and teams of government investigators descended on the scene where the bridge came crashing down, Miami-Dade police said they expect the death toll of six to rise.
"We know that there are people missing," said Miami-Dade police director Juan Perez, who did not clarify whether the death toll includes those still trapped under the bridge. "We’re caught in a bad place right now."
Rescuers also ran into some bad luck. Before dawn on Friday, a crane used to remove heavy chunks of concrete stopped functioning, and workers backed it away from the recovery site. By early afternoon, wreckers were using heavy machinery to chip away at the massive southern end of the collapsed walkway, which had buckled.
"It’s a slow process because of the unsteadiness of the structure," said Miami-Dade police spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta.
While rescuers search for the dead and investigators document the evidence in painstaking detail, Perez said police are working to contact the families of those whose bodies have been identified. Their names will not be released until then, he said.
Then there are the missing.
Perez said investigators have an idea of who may have been inside some of the eight cars crushed under the bridge because of their license plates. But police cannot be certain who was behind the wheel of each car, or account for any possible passengers, until rescuers finish the grim task of clearing the rubble.
"This is going to be a long-term operation," said Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey.
In an interview on WIOD-AM 610 Friday morning, Perez said rescue workers have confirmed at least five bodies remain under the bridge, although that number could rise.
Perez also said criminal charges are possible, depending on the results of ongoing investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue workers, homicide detectives, engineers and federal investigators have been working the scene since the bridge fell across eight lanes of the heavily traveled Tamiami Trail while unsuspecting drivers below waited at a red light.
It is not yet clear what caused the collapse only five days after construction crews raised the bridge’s main span, measuring 175 feet long, into place on March 10. It was the first piece of a planned 320-foot-long pedestrian bridge that would have connected FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus to the neighboring city of Sweetwater.
The $14.2 million structure, which FIU had touted as an innovative "instant" bridge because of construction techniques intended to speed up the work and minimize disruption to commuter traffic, was installed in less than six hours.
But the project was far from complete and not expected to open to student foot traffic until 2019.
Federal investigators said they intend to find out exactly why the bridge collapsed. Speaking at a news conference Friday, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the agency’s team of 15 investigators will be conducting its own investigation of the collapse, independent of local authorities. On Friday, there was still conflicting information about what work, if any, was occurring when it fell.
Mark B. Rosenberg, the university president, said Thursday that there had been testing under way, without being more specific. On Thursday night, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Twitter that the collapse happened as loose cables were being tightened. He learned of that detail from several workers at the site, his office said.
On Friday, authorities declined to answer questions about why the roadway under the bridge was not closed during testing, and Maurice Kemp, a deputy mayor of Miami-Dade County, said they had not even confirmed whether any testing was happening.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.