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Engineers saw cracks in Miami bridge days before collapse

by Phil McCausland /  / Updated 
Workers stand next to a section of a collapsed pedestrian bridge on March 16 near Florida International University in Miami.Wilfredo Lee / AP

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Engineers working on the bridge that fell on to a Florida highway Thursday had attempted to warn state officials about cracks on the walkway just two days before the deadly collapse, according to a voicemail transcript released Friday night by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

The lead engineer of FIGG Bridge Engineers, the company that led the design of the walkway, left a voicemail with FDOT Tuesday that said cracks had appeared on the bridge and were in need of repair.

But the message, left on a landline, was not listened to until Friday because the employee it was intended for was out of the office on assignment, the department said.

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The engineer said in the voicemail: "Calling to, uh, share with you some information about the FIU pedestrian bridge and some cracking that's been observed on the north end of the span, the pylon end of that span we moved this weekend," according to the FDOT.

"From a safety perspective we don't see that there's any issue there, so we're not concerned about it from that perspective," the engineer said according to the transcript, "although obviously the cracking is not good and something's going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that."

The state employee who the message was intended did not listen to it when it was sent because he "was out of office on assignment," the FDOT said. The employee "was able to listen to the voicemail" on Friday, after the bridge collapsed.

An FDOT consultant also attended a midday meeting on Thursday "shortly before" the bridge's 1:30 p.m. collapse, but he was "not notified of any life-safety issues, need for additional road closures or request for any other assistance from FDOT," the agency said.

Engineers also had a permit that allowed them to close the road under the bridge, the Tamiami Trail, but FDOT said the design team never made the request.

In a statement released early Saturday morning, FIU appeared to refute the claim that FDOT was not alerted to the crack before the collapse. The school said that the design team convened a meeting at 9 a.m. on Thursday to discuss the fissure.

"The FIGG engineer of record delivered a technical presentation regarding the crack and concluded that there were no safety concerns and the crack did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge," the university said. "This meeting lasted approximately two hours and included FIU and FDOT representatives."

Related: Why did Miami bridge collapse? More than one reason likely

Dick Kane, communications director for FDOT, said in Friday night's statement that the state agency was not culpable for the possible oversight.

"The responsibility to identify and address life-safety issues and properly communicate them is the sole responsibility of the FIU design build team," Kane said in the FDOT's statement. "At no point during any of the communications above did FIGG or any member of the FIU design build team ever communicate a life-safety issue."

In an emailed statement Friday night, the company said:

“FIGG Bridge Engineers, Inc., continues to work diligently with the construction team to help determine the cause of the collapse of the pedestrian bridge that was under construction at Florida International University. We are heartbroken by the loss of life and injuries, and are carefully examining the steps that our team has taken in the interest of our overarching concern for public safety. The evaluation was based on the best available information at that time and indicated that there were no safety issues. We will pursue answers to find out what factors led to this tragic situation, but it is important that the agencies responsible for investigating this devastating situation are given the appropriate time in order to accurately identify what factors led to the accident during construction. We are committed to working with all appropriate authorities throughout this process.”

Related: First victim of Florida bridge collapse identified as FIU student Alexa Duran

Meanwhile, National Transportation Safety Board Chief Investigator Robert Accetta said at a news conference Friday night that it was too early to conclude whether the cracks were related to the incident.

"I would have to say that a crack in the bridge does not necessarily mean it's unsafe," he said, though NTSB investigators made it clear that they had not confirmed whether there were cracks. "That's still too early in the investigation for us to determine."

NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said at the press conference Friday evening that "I don’t think we know at this point, factually, that there was a crack in the bridge," and "we have not confirmed that."

The bridge section that collapsed was designed to hold its own weight until the entire span is assembled into place, experts told NBC News. It was built under a method called accelerated bridge construction, which FIU helped to popularize beginning in 2010 but has been around in some form for about 30 years.

With accelerated bridge construction, prefabricated bridge elements are made in a factory, then shipped to the site and put together at the scene.

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