Company that designed failed Miami bridge worked on Connecticut’s Q, Moses Wheeler spans

The Connecticut DOT allowed visitors to walk across the new southbound Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge on I-95 during its grand opening celebration Saturday morning, September 18, 2015 in New Haven.

The Connecticut DOT allowed visitors to walk across the new southbound Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge on I-95 during its grand opening celebration Saturday morning, September 18, 2015 in New Haven.

The company that designed a pedestrian bridge in Miami that collapsed Thursday, killing at least six people, was the daily construction inspector on the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge in New Haven and is doing the same work for the Gold Star Memorial Bridge between New London and Groton, according to a state Department of Transportation official.

Mark Rolfe, chief engineer for the DOT, said last Friday that the department uses multiple safety procedures and that those bridges are safe.

FIGG Bridge Group, whose motto is “Creating Bridges as Art,” was also hired to do an independent design review of concrete piers of the Moses Wheeler Bridge between Milford and Stratford, Rolfe said. Both the Pearl Harbor and Moses Wheeler bridges are on Interstate 95.

“The Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge is absolutely safe,” Rolfe said. “We have a multilayered approach to how we do our bridges.”

He said the same is true for other bridges that FIGG has been involved with, including four spans at the interchange of Route 2 and Interstate 84 in East Hartford. The company is doing repair and reconstruction work on those bridges.

On Friday, officials said cables suspending the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University were being tightened after a stress test when the 950-ton structure fell onto traffic below. Authorities said the death toll could rise.

Rolfe said it was unclear who is responsible for the bridge collapse. “It could be a whole host of things that caused a tragedy like that and I don’t want to speculate what it might be,” he said. “FIGG has done good work for us here in Connecticut.”

FIGG, based in Tallahassee, Florida, is known for building bridges with striking designs, such as the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, and the new I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, which replaced a bridge that collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145. According to the company, FIGG designed the Florida bridge, working with Munilla Construction Management of Miami.

Both companies been fined for negligence on past projects. According to the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, FIGG was assessed $28,000 in fines in 2012 after a 90-ton slab of concrete fell from the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge in Chesapeake. A girder used to support part of the bridge was modified without the manufacturer’s consent, according to the Virginia Department of Labor. FIGG issued a statement saying the girder “had nothing to do with the final bridge,” according to the Virginian-Pilot. There were only minor injuries.

Munilla has been fined $50,000 for 11 safety violations in the past five years and a worker won a $143,000 judgment when a makeshift bridge collapsed under him, according to the Associated Press.

The contractor that built the new Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, commonly called the Q bridge, was Walsh Construction Co./PCL Joint Venture. FIGG was a subconsultant to the main construction engineering and inspection contractor, HW Lochner of Waterbury, Rolfe said.

“They just inspected the work to make sure the work was performed in accordance with the plans and specifications,” he said. “They were the department’s eyes and ears overseeing the work,” filing reports on a daily basis. FIGG would also do paperwork, such as preparing payment requisitions, he said.

“On top of all of that, there’s department staff” on site to oversee construction, Rolfe said.

The daily inspection FIGG was responsible for is separate from the final inspection of the bridge. That was performed by HAKS, which is based in New York and has an office in Bridgeport.

“The final step before we relieve Walsh/PCL of responsibility for the bridge is we have a team of bridge inspectors who sign off that the bridge is complete and the department is going to take ownership of it,” Rolfe said.

For the Moses Wheeler Bridge, “there were issues we were having with some of the concrete piers,” Rolfe said. “We called on one of our on-call design engineers to validate the design of the bridge and we wanted to do an independent check of the design.”

GM2 Associates of Glastonbury was hired to independently review the design of the bridge’s substructure, and FIGG was subcontracted to analyze the work. “They’re doing an independent review of someone else’s work,” Rolfe said. “They have no independent responsibility for the design or the construction of the bridge.”

The $14.2 million pedestrian bridge that collapsed Thursday was scheduled to open in 2019, crossing six lanes of traffic between Florida International in Miami and the city of Sweetwater, where many students live.

FIGG issued a statement Friday in which it said it was “stunned” by the “tragic collapse.” “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.”

The company said it has worked on more than 230 bridges and has “designed nearly 35 miles of bridges in the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico that have withstood multiple hurricanes.”

When finished, the bridge would have been supported from above, with a tall, off-center tower and cables attached to the walkway. That tower had not yet been installed, and it was unclear what builders were using as temporary supports.

An accelerated construction method was supposed to reduce risks to workers and pedestrians and minimize traffic disruption, the university said. The school has long been interested in this kind of bridge design; in 2010, it opened an Accelerated Bridge Construction-University Transportation Center to “provide the transportation industry with the tools needed to effectively and economically utilize the principles of ABC to enhance mobility and safety, and produce safe, environmentally friendly, long-lasting bridges.”

Robert Bea, a professor of engineering and construction management at the University of California, Berkeley, said it was too early to know exactly what happened, but he called it a risky move to use what the bridge builders called an “innovative installation” over a heavily traveled thoroughfare.

“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,” Bea said after reviewing the bridge’s design and photos of the collapse.