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Bodies, cars still pinned by deadly Miami bridge collapse

A damaged car is seen partially trapped as workers remove debris from a collapsed pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, U.S., March 16, 2018.  REUTERS/Joe Skipper
A damaged car is seen partially trapped as workers remove debris from a collapsed pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, U.S., March 16, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

MIAMI — Workers slowly broke up chunks of a newly built footbridge that collapsed onto a major highway in Miami, killing at least six people, and police on Friday warned that more victims could be found in crushed vehicles in the rubble.

The 950-ton, $14.2 million bridge plummeted onto traffic on one of the busiest roads in South Florida on Thursday. With at least eight vehicles still buried on Friday morning, the death toll could rise, police said.

“We know that there’s people missing, the family members know that there’s people missing, and what we can tell them is that we can assume that they’re in there,” Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department director, said at a news conference.

After searching the site with sniffer dogs, police determined late on Thursday that no one else would be pulled out alive, Perez told reporters on Friday.

The victims have not been named, but at least one was a female student at Florida International University (FIU), whose campus borders the roadway, officials said.

At least 10 people were taken to hospitals; two remained in critical condition on Friday, officials and local news media reported.

Witnesses told local media the vehicles had stopped at a traffic light when the bridge collapsed on top of them around 1:30 p.m. ET (1730 GMT).

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Uncertainty over the stability of remaining sections of the bridge hampered rescue efforts, officials said.

News reports saying that engineers may have been conducting a stress test that might have led to the collapse could not be confirmed, officials said. It was too early to say whether anyone might face criminal charges, Perez said.

The 174-feet-long (53-meter-long) bridge connected FIU with the city of Sweetwater and was installed on Saturday in six hours over the eight-lane highway, according to a report posted on the public research university’s website.

‘HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE’

Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office has said that a company contracted to inspect the bridge was not pre-qualified by the state. “If anybody has done anything wrong, we will hold them accountable,” Scott said late on Thursday.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida asked the U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday to turn over all records related to the engineering, design, construction, safety and inspection of the project.

“If anyone dropped the ball and it contributed to this tragedy, then they should be held accountable,” Nelson, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, wrote in his letter.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene on Friday to investigate why it collapsed.

Munilla Construction Management (MCM), which installed the bridge, said it was devastated by what happened, was cooperating with investigators and was doing everything it could to help.

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The Miami-based company, which also has divisions in Texas and Panama, employs about 500 people and specializes in civil projects, airports and educational facilities. Since it was founded in 1983, it has handled billions of dollars worth of projects in Panama, Florida, and the U.S. Southeast.

A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County Public Schools said MCM had been doing high-quality work for the district for more than 20 years, but noted that the FIU bridge project was different.

“You can’t really compare them,” said the spokeswoman, Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, adding that all contractors are evaluated on an ongoing basis by district staff.

“Their eligibility for future work is based on past performance, as well as bonding, capacity and pre-qualification limits which consider all work performed by a firm,” she said.

MCM has also received the backing of Miami-Dade County to build a planned $800 million bridge between Miami and Miami Beach, including receiving the county’s support in a lawsuit seeking to block Florida officials from awarding the project to a competitor.

According to campaign finance reports, the company and the five brothers who own it give generously to candidates at the local, state, and federal level. MCM officials did not respond to requests for further comment on Friday.

The bridge at FIU was intended to provide a walkway over the busy street, where an 18-year-old female university student from San Diego was killed in August, local media said. Students at FIU were on their spring break vacation this week.

To limit disruption to traffic, the 174-foot portion of the bridge was built next to Southwest 8th Street using a method called Accelerated Bridge Construction before being driven into its position over the road using a rig.

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It was designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, the rating given the most dangerous storms by the National Hurricane Center, and built to last 100 years, the university said.

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Gina Cherelus in New York, and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

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