Alexis Dale, 18, was killed crossing a highway in Florida, US, last year.
Alexis Dale, 18, was killed crossing a highway in Florida, US, last year.

Teen death led to bridge rush-job

THE bridge that collapsed on a highway in Florida, US and killed several people on Thursday was built under the "accelerated construction" method to improve safety after a student died crossing the road a year earlier.

Florida International University (FIU) student Alexis Dale, 18, was trying to cross a major eight-lane highway that runs from downtown Miami to the Everglades, when she was hit by a motorist and killed in August 2017.

"It is with heavy hearts that we inform you that early this morning an FIU student was struck by a vehicle while crossing SW 8th Street at 109th Avenue, adjacent to MMC," an official statement from the university read on August 20, 2017.

"Tragically, the student, Alexis Dale, 18, passed away."

A 950-tonne pedestrian bridge collapsed on Thursday, March 15, over several cars causing several fatalities and injuries. Picture: Pedro Portal/ The Miami Herald via AP
A 950-tonne pedestrian bridge collapsed on Thursday, March 15, over several cars causing several fatalities and injuries. Picture: Pedro Portal/ The Miami Herald via AP

The tragedy prompted calls for a bridge to be installed over the highway quickly to prevent more deaths from occurring. It was there the bridge, which was constructed in six hours on Saturday, was supposed to span. The 53m-long, 950 tonne bridge had been assembled by the side of the highway and moved into place to great fanfare, but wasn't planned to open to foot traffic until next year.

Now, the site is the scene of tragedy again after the bridge collapsed onto 8th Street on Thursday (local time), crushing at least eight vehicles under massive slabs of concrete and steel and killing multiple people, authorities said.

"We have a national tragedy on our hands," Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez said.

The exact death toll is unclear. Florida Highway Patrol Lt Alejandro Camacho told CBS News that there were "several fatalities". Carlie Waibel, a spokeswoman for Senator Bill Nelson, said local officials told Mr Nelson that people had died, but a final number had not been confirmed.

The fast construction style was supposed to reduce risks to workers and pedestrians and minimise traffic disruption, Florida International University said.

The university touted the bridge as the first of its kind, hailing it as a win for student safety as it was intended to provide safe passage from the school to a neighbourhood called Sweetwater, where thousands of students live.

"FIU is about building bridges and student safety. This project accomplishes our mission beautifully," Mark B. Rosenberg, the university's president, said in a tweet about the bridge.

But an engineering professor said the decision to use what the builders called an "innovative installation" for the Florida pedestrian bridge was risky.

Professor of engineering and construction management at the University of California, Berkeley Robert Bea said it's too early to know exactly what happened in the collapse. But he questions the builders' decision to try a "rapid span installation" where the span was prefabricated, then swung into place before its central support tower was built. The section was put into place across a busy eight-lane road on Saturday.

Prof Bea said trying something new that crossed a highway was a gamble.

Emergency personnel respond to the disaster scene. Picture: Roberto Koltun/The Miami Herald via AP.
Emergency personnel respond to the disaster scene. Picture: Roberto Koltun/The Miami Herald via AP.

Cristina Rodriguez, a junior at FIU, said she was not surprised when she heard about the collapse. She said the bridge seemed to be built too quickly "to support everything that was on there".

A pedestrian bridge collapsed just a few days after it was built. Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP.
A pedestrian bridge collapsed just a few days after it was built. Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP.

Renderings of the project showed a tall, off-centre tower with cables attached to the walkway to support it. When the bridge collapsed, the main tower had not yet been installed, and it was unclear what the builders were using as temporary supports.

Prof Bea said it was too early to know exactly what happened, but the installation method was risky.

"Innovations take a design firm into an area where they don't have applicable experience, and then we have another unexpected failure on our hands," he said after reviewing the bridge's design and photos of the collapse.

Munilla Construction Management, or MCM, the Miami-based construction management firm that won the bridge contract, has taken its website down. But an archived version of the site featured a news release touting the project with FIGG Bridge Engineers, a firm based in Tallahassee.

Construction on the new South Norfolk Jordan Bridge before it collapsed onto the road below. Picture: Bill Tiernan/The Virginian-Pilot via AP
Construction on the new South Norfolk Jordan Bridge before it collapsed onto the road below. Picture: Bill Tiernan/The Virginian-Pilot via AP

MCM said on Twitter that it was "a family business and we are all devastated and doing everything we can to assist. We will conduct a full investigation to determine exactly what went wrong and will co-operate with investigators on scene in every way".

FIGG said in a statement: "In our 40-year history, nothing like this has ever happened before." But FIGG was fined in 2012 after a 90-tonne section of a bridge it was building in Virginia crashed onto railroad tracks below, causing minor injuries to several workers. The citation from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry said FIGG did not properly inspect a girder and had not obtained written consent from its manufacturer before modifying it, according to a story in The Virginian-Pilot.

Court documents show that MCM was accused of substandard work in a lawsuit filed earlier this month. The suit said a worker at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, where the company is working on an expansion, was injured when a makeshift MCM-built bridge collapsed under his weight.

The suit accused the company of employing "incompetent, inexperienced, unskilled or careless employees" at the job site.

A review of Occupational Safety Health Administration records shows that MCM has been fined for 11 safety violations in the last five years. The fines totalling more than $50,000 arose from complaints about unsafe trenches, cement dust and other problems at its Florida work sites.

- With AAP

megan.palin@news.com.au | @Megan_Palin



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