As of Friday morning, officials reported six people had died in the disastrous pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University (FIU). At least nine others were injured, two critically. The tragedy involved a red light – but also serious questions about whether this new, highly celebrated bridge should have gotten the green light.
Daniel Betancourt was working as a valet outside Florida International University’s medical school around 1:30 pm Thursday when he heard the tremor. A block away, the new FIU pedestrian bridge – a 174-foot, 950-ton expanse across Southwest 8th Street at 109th Avenue – had imploded.
“The first thing I saw was cars being crushed under a bridge that collapsed from the center,” Betancourt said.
Betancourt ran around the building and was sickened not just by the broken bridge plunging at an angle into the pavement below. Nor by just the cars he saw under the collapsed bridge, their headlights staring at him. Something else caught his eye:
“The red light.”
That red traffic light meant eight cars had been sitting helplessly under the bridge when suddenly, without warning, it came down. When first responders arrived within minutes, the rescue scenario looked as grim as anything they’d seen.
“This is…this is about an 11 on a scale from 1 to 10,” said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Al Cruz.
Cruz said the sheer mass of the bridge – coupled with the instability of the immense rubble his team needed to search – made it a forbidding task.
“We’re working feverishly with the heavy machinery to try to penetrate the concrete to be able to get cameras in there, and also our search dogs," said Cruz, "to see if there’s any viable patients inside the eight vehicles that are trapped underneath all the rubble.”
Miami-Dade search-and-rescue workers are known for their efforts at disaster sites around the world. Within hours they’d gotten nine people who were injured at the edge of the bridge collapse to Kendall Regional Trauma Center.
But as night fell, the questions about how a colossal new structure like this could have failed so catastrophically got louder.
“There’ll be, clearly be, an investigation to find out exactly what happened and why this happened," said Florida Governor Rick Scott, briefing the media as rescuers worked just yards away. "And we will hold anybody accountable if anything, if anybody’s done anything wrong.”
Scott was joined by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and FIU President Mark Rosenberg. Rubio pointed out that ironically the bridge was built as a safety measure – especially after an FIU student was killed by a car last year while crossing 8th Street. He also promised the federal government would take part in the investigation.
“That’s the one thing that we do owe the people of the country and the people of this community...because part of this project is federal funding...that everyone took great pride in," said Rubio. "We deserve to know what went wrong.”
Rosenberg seemed especially stunned. Just last weekend he and the university were celebrating the erection of the $14 million "quick-build" bridge – which had passed inspection by the firm BDI.
“This bridge was about collaboration, it was about hope," Rosenberg said. "It was about opportunity, it was about determination.”
Now Rosenberg was answering questions about FIU’s vetting of the construction companies – including the Miami firm MCM.
“This," Rosenberg insisted, "has been one of the most intensely managed processes...around because of the federal support for it.”
But perhaps the biggest question Thursday night was whether stress tests being conducted on the still unopened bridge might have played a role in the collapse.