Part break bridge

Tim Worstall alerts me to an update on the bridge collapse in Florida, which I wrote about here and here.

A doomed design was the “probable cause” of the horrific collapse of a pedestrian bridge in Miami last year that killed six people and injured 10, the National Transportation Safety Board found Tuesday.

A peer review that failed to detect the calculation errors by designer FIGG Bridge Engineers – and an engineer’s failure to recognize the importance of cracking before the collapse – contributed to the tragedy, the board said.

My initial thoughts when I heard about the collapse were:

A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are.

In such an environment, it is inevitable that the quality of work suffers, errors go unnoticed, and – occasionally – catastrophes occur.

So I got the errors going unnoticed part right. I also said:

I’d be willing to bet a hundred quid the calculations and finite element modelling were done outside the US to save money, or subcontracted to another company, and supervision – which involves expensive Americans – was at nowhere near the levels it should have been. Regardless of where they were done, I’d also be willing to bet the company spent more manhours on progress meetings and overly-detailed weekly reports to let the management know what was going on than they did checking the engineering calculations.

Here’s what the article says:

NTSB staffer Dan Walsh said the construction was “high-risk” because of the complex design of the bridge. But he added that the school was overseeing the project, and the state Transportation Department was not required to have an inspector on site.

“Our recommendations address this issue, that FDOT should have more authority on this type of project,” Walsh said.

Uh-huh. The school awarded the job to MCM, perhaps on the basis of a glossy brochure on how committed they were to diversity and inclusion, and MCM handed the bridge design work off to FIGG and didn’t bother to supervise them or make sure their calculations were sound. Nor did they think anything was wrong when FIGG started tensioning the bridge trusses over live traffic, which would have had me blowing whistles and waving red flags without knowing the first thing about bridges. Result: collapsed bridge and dead people.

The board issued several recommendations to ensure that additional guidance will allow designers to better determine loads; that plans will undergo peer review by a qualified independent firm.

This doesn’t happen already?! When I got a crane built for an oil company in Nigeria, I used a specialist crane design company in the Netherlands and then got the entire design, including the calculations, verified by an independent third-party certification body. The same outfit also witnessed the load test and signed off on it. I thought this was standard.

FIU President Mark Rosenberg lauded the project when the section was dropped into place days before the tragedy.

“FIU is about building bridges and student safety,” Rosenberg said. “This project accomplishes our mission beautifully.”

If an accident happens on an oil and gas construction site resulting in fatalities, the oil company is ultimately responsible because they own the job and they are obliged to use competent contractors thus ensuring the safety of all workers. They aren’t permitted to just point at the engineering and construction contractor and say “nothing to do with us”. This is why BP got clobbered for the Deepwater Horizon accident more than Transocean who owned the rig. Perhaps it’s time this ownership principle was extended to civil works in public places?


10 thoughts on “Part break bridge

  1. Hmm, I have a more than sneaking suspicion that whoever ends up being dragged away in cuffs will be white, male and middle aged.

  2. They aren’t permitted to just point at the engineering and construction contractor and say “nothing to do with us”. This is why BP got clobbered for the Deepwater Horizon accident more than Transocean who owned the rig. Perhaps it’s time this ownership principle was extended to civil works in public places?

    This is different. Apparently

  3. I always assumed BP got clobbered because they had deeper pockets and sounded vaguely foreign.

  4. BP got clobbered — properly — because they made the decisions which led to the catastrophe. Particularly the decision to start pumping the mud off the drilling rig before the well was confirmed to be properly suspended.

    There will always be accidents. The bad part about modern practice is that the woman or man at the top too often evades responsibility. Classic example in the public sector was the woman police officer in London who authorized the unwarranted killing of a completely innocent Brazilian resident in the London Underground — and is now the head of the Metropolitan Police. Good current example in the private sector is that Muelinburg is still CEO of Boeing, despite several hundred dead passengers from two plane crashes.

    It would be easier to understand the top guys getting the big bucks if they also were held accountable for anything that goes wrong in their organization.

  5. 24th October 2019

    Florida International University
    1001 Washington Avenue
    Miami Beach, Florida 33139

    Attention: The Manager

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    Design & Construction
    FIU Pedestrian Underpass
    Fixed Price Lump Sum Proposal

    On behalf of Desert Diamond LLC, we have pleasure is submitting our firm lump sum price proposal for the works. We have studied the site, the existing documented information, the constraints and the student pedestrian flows and have developed a tunneled pedestrian underpass solution that we considered befitting of the FIU needs and facilities.

    Safety of the patrons, pedestrians, utility owners and vehicular traffic flows were the main acceptance criteria in arriving at our conclusion. Our proposal is for a 94m long pedestrian underpass constructed using a canopy tube arch support system, in two distinct sections,with a proven technique that we are completely familiar with. This method also eliminates the need for surface construction and disruption, effectively reducing by 95% the risk exposure level faced by students, pedestrians, the public and the highway users.

    Our fixed price to design, construct and commission the works, within 9 months of contract award is equal in value to the original bridge design and construct contract value. We propose that we enter into a risk sharing arrangement with you whereby the party most able to carry the identified risks, agrees to take the risk and a risk contingency allocated to each of them, should the risk not eventuate then the budgeted contingency will be offered as saving to you.

    Our detailed technical proposal is attached for your information and review, we would welcome any further discussion on any aspect of our proposal as required.

    We look forward to progressing on to the next stage of the project.

    Yours faithfully
    Desert Diamond Constructions LLC

    Bardon Jones
    Vice President


    1 – FIU Pedestrian Underpass Technical Proposal

  6. I hope they’re also doing an inquest into whether there was an sufficient distribution of old white men amongst the dead. Otherwise that rubble is looking at serious jail time.

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