3 bodies recovered as 2 vehicles removed from Florida bridge collapse

MIAMI — Two vehicles and three bodies inside them were removed Saturday from the site of Thursday’s pedestrian bridge collapse near Florida International University, Miami-Dade police Director Juan Perez said.

Two more vehicles remain in the rubble, and crews hope to extract those vehicles in the next 12 hours, he said.

“It’s going to be a long process,” Perez said, “because (of) the … weight and size of the structure that is laying on top of these vehicles.”

Authorities have said that at least six people were killed in the collapse. It’s unclear how many bodies remain under the rubble. Before Saturday’s extraction, police said they believed the remains of five of the six known dead were still in the wreckage.

Two days before an under-construction pedestrian bridge crumbled in Miami, killing at least six people, an engineer for the company that designed it called a Florida Department of Transportation employee, warning of “some cracking.”

The state employee was out on assignment that day. The call from W. Denney Pate of FIGG Bridge Engineers went unanswered, and the voice mail he recorded unheard — until Friday.

That was the day after the span fell onto a busy eight-lane street near Florida International University, crushing people and cars.

In Tuesday’s voice mail, Pate said the cracking on the north end of the span should be repaired. However, he added, there were no safety concerns on the project.

“We’ve taken a look at it and, uh, obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done,” Pate said.

“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.”

It’s too early to tell whether the bridge failed when construction workers were applying post-tensioning force to strengthen the beams, said Robert Accetta of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Accetta said a crack in the bridge “does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe.”

Sen. Bill Nelson is asking the US Department of Transportation for documents related to the “engineering, design, construction, safety and inspection.”

“In light of the fact that there were multiple agencies and companies involved, we’re going to need a clear understanding of who had what role in this horrible tragedy,” Nelson said in a statement Friday.

Searching for loved ones

The bridge was supposed to enhance safety and keep pedestrians safe from traffic on busy Southwest Eighth Street, where a vehicle fatally struck an 18-year-old FIU student in August.

On Thursday, the span collapsed, months ahead of its completion, crushing the cars below and trapping an unknown number of people and injuring others.

It’s unclear how many bodies remain under the rubble. Two crushed vehicles were removed from the scene Saturday morning and taken to the Miami-Dade County medical examiner’s office, police said.

Police didn’t say how many bodies were in those vehicles. They had said that of the six known dead, at least five bodies still were under the wreckage Friday before those vehicles were removed.

Workers covered the extracted vehicles with tarps and placed them onto flatbed trucks, which then took them away.

Police had said the work to remove crushed vehicles from the scene would be long and tedious — in part because the large debris that smashed them needed to be broken down into small chunks and taken away.

Authorities have not identified any of the victims and have said crews may find more people as they dig through the rubble.

Among the six killed is 18-year-old Alexa Duran, her father told el Nuevo Herald.

The FIU student was driving under the bridge Thursday when it crashed down. A friend traveling with Duran tried but couldn’t pull her out.

“My little girl was trapped in the car and couldn’t get out,” Orlando Duran said.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa confirmed Alexa Duran’s death in a tweet and said she was the “daughter of an Ecuadorian father.”

It’s unclear whether Duran’s body has been recovered.

Others have desperately waited for nearly 48 hours for word on their loved ones.

Jorge Fraga has visited a local hospital, called the Red Cross and tried to get close to the debris looking for his 60-year-old uncle.

“I want to find out for sure if it’s him out there,” Fraga told CNN affiliate WPLG. “They saw the car — his Cherokee. We don’t know exactly his whereabouts.”

Barbie Brewer, a victim advocate for the Miami-Dade Police Department, told WPLG that most families are hopeful.

“They just want to believe that their families are still alive,” she said.

Bridge was to connect campus to neighborhood

The pedestrian bridge was meant to connect the FIU campus to a neighborhood in Sweetwater, home to more than 4,000 of its students. FIU is the second-largest public university in Florida, with about 50,000 students.

The 174-foot main span had been assembled on the side of the road, allowing traffic to continue. On March 10, a rig moved the span into position over the street as community members gathered to watch. The process took about six hours.

The bridge was scheduled to open to foot traffic in 2019.

FIU has been on spring break this week, but classes will resume as scheduled on Monday. Counseling services will be available for students, faculty and staff, the school said.

The university’s Student Government Association is planning to hold a vigil for the victims Wednesday morning at a campus facility.

Safety concerns

Munilla Construction Management, or MCM, a construction firm building the bridge, and FIGG Bridge Engineers said they are cooperating with investigators

A spokesman for MCM told CNN the company has had $152 million in federally funded government projects in the past five years. Federal contract data show that since 2013, MCM has been awarded about $130 million worth of contracts from the Army and Navy for construction, maintenance and repair projects. Documents show it was involved in bridge projects nationwide.

At least one MCM project resulted in a lawsuit concerning safety. Records show the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited MCM for 11 violations involving construction projects in Miami and Hialeah, Florida, between 2014 and 2017.

The OSHA violations included citations for employees not receiving proper hazardous-chemicals training before handling concrete, not removing water from excavations and not wearing safety glasses and protective gloves, documents show.

The reason behind Thursday’s collapse remains a mystery, and the company has said it will conduct a full investigation.