New pedestrian bridge collapses at Florida International University, crushing eight cars driving underneath

MIAMI — A pedestrian bridge under construction at Florida International University west of Miami collapsed Thursday afternoon, crushing eight vehicles on the road beneath and injuring multiple people, according to authorities.

The sudden collapse left people trapped in the rubble, and emergency workers cut through debris to rescue at least two victims. A total of eight people with injuries were taken to hospitals, fire officials said, and teams of rescue workers and search dogs scrambled to find victims Thursday afternoon.

The bridge, which weighs more than 950 tons, collapsed about 1:30 p.m. “I have no idea what lies underneath, in the rubble,” said Lt. Alex Camacho of the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Several emergency agencies are responding and the situation is evolving, according to Alvaro Zabaleta, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Police Department. The bridge was designed to connect the university campus to the city of Sweetwater, and crosses Southwest Eighth Street, a major road that stretches from downtown Miami to the far western reaches of the county.

“Just last week we were celebrating the expanse being completed and now we are here dealing with a tragedy,” Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez said at a news conference Thursday.

Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said at the news conference that authorities could not confirm whether anyone had died in the collapse. At a minimum, he said, there are many serious injuries. He declined to talk about whether stress tests had been conducted on the bridge. “It will be days before we have answers,” he said. “This will be an intensive investigation. Right now, we are still in search-and-rescue mode.

Alexander Concha, 36, and Ivy Polanco, 23, were about to have lunch at Panther’s Boulevard Cafe, about a block away from the bridge. Suddenly, they heard wailing sirens and helicopters buzzing overhead. “Our first reaction was, we hope it’s not the bridge,” Concha said. “On the side where it collapsed, it didn’t seem very secure. It seemed very unsafe.”

The bridge collapse happened during Florida International’s spring break.

“It’s very lucky that we are on spring break and that this didn’t happen during rush hour,” said Polanco, who is an FIU student. “It could have been so much worse.”

Southwest Eighth Street is closed in both directions as emergency crews work at the scene, Camacho said.

The bridge, adjacent to FIU’s campus, had just been installed over the weekend and was not open to pedestrians.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday it was dispatching a team to Miami to investigate.

A spokeswoman for the university did not immediately return messages seeking comment. But school officials sent a statement Thursday afternoon saying they were “shocked and saddened about the tragic events unfolding at the FIU-Sweetwater pedestrian bridge. 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.”

A news release from Florida International University on Saturday touted the bridge’s “first-of-its kind” construction method, and hailed the permanent installation of the bridge’s main span. It stretched 174 feet and weighed 960 tons, according to the release and was built using what are called “Accelerated Bridge Construction” methods being developed at the university.

“This method of construction reduces potential risks to workers, commuters and pedestrians and minimizes traffic interruptions,” the release said.

When it was installed, crews lifted the span from its supports, turned it 90 degrees across eight lanes and lowered it in place, the release said. The university said it was the largest pedestrian bridge moved by that method, known as Self-Propelled Modular Transportation, in U.S. history.

“This project is an outstanding example of the ABC method,” said Atorod Azizinamini, chairman of FIU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, in the release. “Building the major element of the bridge — its main span superstructure — outside of the traveled way and away from busy Eighth Street is a milestone.”

Last year, the Miami Herald reported that a FIU student was killed while crossing Southwest Eighth Street.

FIGG Engineering, which designed the bridge, released a statement Thursday afternoon: “We are stunned by today’s tragic collapse of a pedestrian bridge that was under construction over Southwest Eighth Street in Miami. Our deepest sympathies are with all those affected by this accident. We will fully cooperate with every appropriate authority in reviewing what happened and why. In our 40-year history, nothing like this has ever happened before. Our entire team mourns the loss of life and injuries associated with this devastating tragedy, and our prayers go out to all involved.”

Asked if the construction methods might have factored into the collapse, Ron Sachs, a spokesman for FIGG Engineering, said he could not provide any details on the collapse beyond a statement issued by the company.

“They’re in a fact-finding mode” along with authorities, he said of the company. “They’re stunned and certainly in mourning.”

Sachs said he believed there would be a comprehensive investigation involving authorities, including the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“We’re going to cooperate with any and all of those,” he said.

Mark Berman contributed to this report. 

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