MIAMI — A pedestrian bridge under construction at Florida International University collapsed Thursday, just days after crews had dropped an elevated 950-ton span in place in a project that was intended to give students a safe route across the busy roadway.
The bridge gave way suddenly while the traffic light for motorists on Tamiami Trail was red, so the concrete span fell on top of a row of stopped vehicles.
A woman who was stopped at the light and was heading westbound said the structure fell without warning. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said it was immediately clear to her that several people were dead.
Motorists scrambled out of their cars to help. She said one girl was seated in the front of a car whose rear was crushed by the bridge. The girl was pulled out unscathed by rescuers.
From a block away, it looked like the northernmost concrete pier that supported the bridge collapsed to the side.
Responders on the scene of the FIU pedestrian bridge collapse Thursday, March 15, 2018 at SW 109th Avenue and 8th Street in Miami, trapping unknown numbers of people beneath. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/TNS)
The bridge crashed across six lanes of heavily traveled Tamiami Trail, crushing a still undetermined number of cars and killing a still unclear number of people. Police on the scene said at least six people could be dead.
The Florida Highway Patrol reported five or six cars were trapped under the bridge. Miami-Dade County police said at least eight cars had been crushed under the walkway, which had not yet been opened to student traffic.
At least eight people had been transported to the trauma center at Kendall Regional Medical Center, according to a source close to the hospital. The condition of the patients was not yet known.
Miami-Dade County Police Chief Juan Perez said he believed there were multiple people trapped. He wouldn’t venture to guess at the number because first responders were having trouble getting to the vehicles. South Florida’s WSVN-TV reported that television news helicopters were ordered to back off so rescuers could listen for sounds from survivors.
The collapse was clearly a major failure of a project not expected to be completed until early 2019. There was no immediate explanation for what might have triggered the collapse, which occurred shortly before 2 p.m. EDT.
MCM Construction Management, which is building the bridge, posted a message to the company’s Facebook page after the collapse promising “a full investigation to determine exactly what went wrong.”
BDI, the engineering firm responsible for monitoring the structure, said the company would release a statement regarding the bridge collapse later Thursday.
FIU spokeswoman Maydel Santana-Bravo issued a statement, even as rescue crews were still working the scene.
“We are shocked and saddened about the tragic events unfolding at the FIU-Sweetwater Bridge,” she said. “At this time, we are still involved in rescue efforts and gathering information. We are working closely with authorities and first responders on the scene. We will share updates as we have them.”
FIU students are on spring break this week, but traffic was expected to be heavy with the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair nearby scheduled to open Thursday afternoon.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement that he had spoken with Perez, whose agency dispatched homicide detectives to the scene, which occurs during all mass casualty events.
Scott’s office said the governor would visit FIU Thursday to be briefed by police and university officials on the collapse.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said President Donald Trump was “aware” of the deadly pedestrian bridge collapse and would “offer whatever support is needed” to local officials.
Touted as an “instant bridge,” the 950-ton pedestrian walkway was installed in a single morning at Southwest 109th Avenue on Saturday, intended eventually to link FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus directly to the small suburban city of Sweetwater, where the university estimates 4,000 of its students live.
Before Saturday’s installation, FIU said the pedestrian bridge used an innovative approach under which a 175-foot section of the overall 320-foot long bridge was fabricated by the side of the Trail while support columns were erected in place.
Over a few hours on Saturday morning, the 950-ton span was lifted off the ground by a mechanical transporter, swung into position across the Trail, then lowered into place over the support columns.
That reduced to a minimum the time the trail had to be closed to traffic, and minimized risks to workers and people in the vicinity, FIU said.
The university’s engineering school has an “accelerated bridge” program that works on techniques to speed up bridge construction. The program consulted with builders, designers and engineers early in the process, but was not closely involved in the pedestrian bridge program, a spokeswoman said last week.
There were as yet no stairs or ramps to the bridge, which was scheduled to be opened early next year.
Designed as a cable-supported bridge, the $14.2 million bridge project was a collaboration between MCM Construction, a prominent Miami-based contractor, and Figg Bridge Design, based in Tallahassee. Figg is responsible for the iconic Skyway bridge across Tampa Bay.
Figg issued a statement Thursday saying the company was “stunned” by the collapse and promising to cooperate with every authority investigating the collapse.
“In our 40-year history, nothing like this has ever happened before,” the company’s statement said. “Our entire team mourns the loss of life and injuries associated with this devastating tragedy, and our prayers go out to all involved.”
MCM and Figg are part of a consortium that has mounted a legal challenge of the Florida Department of Transportation’s award of the Interstate 395 reconstruction project to a rival team, holding up the plan for months.
A citizen panel judging the 395 bids on aesthetic grounds overwhelmingly preferred Figg’s design for a signature bridge over Biscayne Boulevard, a key element in the project. But MCM’s team alleged that FDOT changed the scoring method to favor the other team’s submission. Figg’s design for a bridge suspended from cables features two support towers that resemble dancers.
Students and faculty have long been clamoring for a bridge at the 109th Street crossing, where students on foot have to get across seven lanes of jam-packed traffic that divide the campus from Sweetwater. Though FIU provides shuttles, many students prefer to walk. In August, FIU undergraduate Alexis Dale was hit and killed by a motorist while crossing the intersection.
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