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Who's To Blame For The Deadly Florida Bridge Collapse?

The construction world rarely sees such devastating failures as Thursday’s collapse of a $14.2M pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami.

A 174-foot, 950-ton section of the bridge had been put up just five days earlier. It collapsed on cars underneath, killing six people. Now, everyone wants to know: Why did it fail?

The university said that the bridge's 950 tons equaled the weight of 271 elephants.

The bridge, called the UniversityCity Bridge and built with federal funds, was needed to link the FIU campus with the neighboring town of Sweetwater, where thousands of students live and a developer was about to break ground on a 492-unit apartment complex called University Bridge Residences

173-page proposal for the bridge that was drawn up in 2015 included technical details and biographies of the bridge-building team. It envisioned the completed bridge as a hangout space for students, with hammocks hung along the walkway and vendors selling coffee. Programmable LED lights would allow it to flash different patterns at night. The proposal specified that Munilla Construction, which does business as MCM Construction Management, "will serve as the Design-Build Team leader and prime legal entity contracting with [FIU]." 

The bridge was designed to look like a cable-stayed bridge, in which cables attached to a tall tower, or pylon, support the bridge deck. In this case, the pylon had not yet been built, and the proposal said that each of two spans should have been self-supporting, with the attachments to the pylon providing extra support. The bridge was designed to withstand hurricanes. 

The Miami Herald reported that the final bodies were removed from the wreckage this weekend. Experts told the Herald that more than one problem could have caused the bridge collapse. 

Concrete Concerns

Days prior to the collapse, an engineer with Figg had alerted officials to cracks in the concrete but said they were not a safety concern. There was a meeting to discuss the cracks hours before the collapse. 

"We don't know if it was a design error, a miscalculation by a structural engineer or poor construction work," Wyatt Porter-Brown, an architect who has worked on projects including Miami International Airport, told Bisnow. He said that if the landing supports were not completely level, "even a very minor deviation in elevation — if you're off by 1/8 inch — could cause a huge twist [in the concrete over such a long span]."

"Two things could have happened," he said. "The deck had cracks observed, and so could have been compromised when they started stressing the cables, or a cable broke, tearing up the deck and weakening it to collapse. I've worked in post-tension projects and it's terrifying, because when a cable breaks, it flies all over, sending concrete builders flying.

"Bottom line: They decided not to pull the road closure permit; [it] takes time and money. But even without the advantage of hindsight, they should have for cable-stressing operations."

Florida's Department of Transportation would have been responsible for closing roads, but FDOT officials said the department had not been aware any such closures were needed at the time.

Porter-Brown said the skill of the workforce could have been a factor. 

"It's like going to a Yugo factory and asking them to build a McLaren," he said. "Miami typically doesn't have a lot of high-tech engineering."

The National Transportation Safety Board is doing a forensic investigation, and homicide detectives are also involved. 

MCM used a technique called Accelerated Bridge Construction, meaning pieces were built off-site and then hoisted into place. Some FIU professors were leaders in this type of construction and founded an institute to advance it. MCM's proposal touted the fact that 40% of its key team members had graduated from FIU. 

According to Construction Dive, ABC has been used successfully around the country. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation used it to install a 4 million-pound railroad truss bridge along Interstate 235, and Tennessee's transportation department has twice used the method and is using it on another $28.5M bridge project in Nashville. 

Controversial Ties

The bridge's architect, Tallahassee-based Figg Bridge Group, has worked on major public projects such as Boston’s iconic Leonard P. Zakim Bridge and St. Petersburg's Sunshine Skyway. It promotes "bridges as art," but has not been free from controversy.

Figg had to pay $28K in fines following a 2012 incident during which a 90-ton portion of the bridge it built fell onto railroad tracks below, and the company was found to have skirted some safety regulations. Following the FIU bridge collapse, Figg made clear on its website that builder MCM was the project leader and Figg had been hired. 

Politico reported that another firm, Louis Berger, had been hired to do an independent, secondary design check — but that firm was not pre-approved by the Florida Department of Transportation, as regulations require.

Barnhart Crane and Rigging was in charge of the cranes on-site, and a Colorado-based company, BDI, had been hired to conduct monitoring while the bridge was moved into place. BDI Vice President Jesse Grimson told Bisnow in an emailed statement that “BDI was not involved in the bridge’s design or construction, and no BDI personnel or equipment were onsite at the time of the incident.”

The 'instant' pedestrian bridge being installed in Miami March 10, 2018. Five days later, the bridge collapsed, killing several people trapped underneath.

Behind The Builder

MCM was founded in Miami, in November 1983 by the six sons of Fernando Munilla Sr. Munilla was a builder in Cuba for almost 20 years before Fidel Castro overthrew the government, according to MCM in court documents. He built the Jose Marti Monument and the Cuyaguateje River Bridge, which was the largest free-span bridge in the Western Hemisphere when it was built in 1954. When Castro came to power, MCM said he confiscated the firm.

Today, the company Munilla's sons founded is politically connected and has donated nearly $1M to Florida politicians combined. Julio Gimenez, the son of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, worked for MCM as a general superintendent from 2006 to 2012, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that cables on the bridge were loose and being tightened at the time the bridge collapsed. 

The Miami New Times reported that Munilla/MCM had been sued for a slip-and-fall accident that injured a Transportation Security Administration employee at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. In addition to the Miami cases, Munilla/MCM has been involved with several civil court cases in Broward County and at the federal level.

In 2008, Gerelco Traffic Controls sued Munilla. The complaint is not available online and Gerelco’s attorney, Adam Linkhorst, told Bisnow he did not remember details about that case.

“Contractors like MCM, it’s not uncommon for there to be lots of little lawsuits not necessarily suggesting bad business practices, or that they do things inappropriately,” Linkhorst said.

Typically, Linkhorst said, construction contracts have a clause specifying who’s responsible for “means and methods” such as the construction sequence and that this could be a factor in litigation. A forensic investigation would reveal whether the bridge collapse was due to a design flaw, construction flaw or both.

Linkhorst said concrete used on construction sites typically is subject to tests.

“When concrete is delivered from the truck, there’s something called a slump test that measures whether the concrete has the appropriate consistency, not too much water," he said. "There are very specific details in terms of strength and type. All that would have been specified in plans or approved by a structural engineer.”

He said that concrete has standard curing periods, but he was not familiar with self-cleaning concrete.

In a 2016 lawsuit, Munilla/MCM was sued by Cadvil LLC, operator of Cadillac Villas apartments on the Isle of Venice, a small, man-made finger island in Fort Lauderdale. FDOT had hired Munilla/MCM to replace a small bridge connecting the residential island to Las Olas Boulevard, one of Fort Lauderdale’s main streets. To build the bridge, workers needed to access an easement and property owned by Cadvil.

Cadvil’s lawsuit alleged that MCM performed "work in a negligent manner,” broke the water line, polluted water, obstructed parking and harassed tenants. It alleged there were “MCM workers urinating and littering on the property,” that they had cracked stucco and terrazzo floors, separated a dock from a seawall, caused a parking lot to sink and built the bridge 2 feet higher than permitted. At one point, the judge ordered a halt to construction. This case is still pending, with a hearing scheduled for May 8.

In June 2017, bicyclist Michael Sode filed suit against Munilla/MCM. In March 2016, Sode was riding his bike near that Las Olas bridge project, where Munilla/MCM had shut down a lane of traffic. Sode alleged that Munilla/MCM failed to close it properly and did not create a safe path for cyclists.

Orange plastic fencing was not secured, he claims, and blew into his path. The fencing got tangled in the wheels of his bike and led to him being hit by a van, which caused permanent injuries. The case is pending. Sode’s attorney did not return a call for comment Friday, and Sode did not respond to an email. 

Munilla/MCM is also party to several lawsuits in federal court.

  • The company sued Walton Construction in 2010. Munilla/MCM wanted to acquire Walton, and the parties agreed to a period of exclusivity while Munilla/MCM conducted its expensive and time-consuming due diligence. Just weeks after their agreement expired, Walton was acquired by another suitor, CORE, leading Munilla/MCM to believe that those parties had been negotiating even during the period of exclusivity. The case went to arbitration.
  • In another federal case, Munilla/MCM sued Hanover Insurance in regards to an Everglades restoration project. The Army Corps of Engineers had first hired another company, Lodge Construction, to handle excavation and replacement work on a levee adjacent to the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Palm Beach County. The $44M job was part of the federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project. The Army Corps released Lodge Construction and hired MCM as the completion contractor. The Army Corps owned sheets of steel that were being used to create cofferdams in the project. There was conflict over whether MCM was entitled to use materials worth $387K. The case was settled in mediation in 2015.
  • Another federal lawsuit, which was opened in 2016 and closed in 2017, shows that Munilla/MCM sued the United States in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington. Pleadings are sealed, but some related documents show that it pertained to whether Munilla/MCM or another company, Seaward Services, should have been awarded a contract to manage a port at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Munilla had been a port operator there since 1999.
  • Munilla/MCM was also awarded a $63M contract for construction of the WT Sampson K-12 school in Guantanamo Bay.

Munilla/MCM and Figg have also been party to lawsuits in Leon County — where Florida's state capital, Tallahassee, is located — but records are not available online. Both companies have worked on projects around the country. 

It is unknown how long the forensic investigation will take to complete, but Figg and MCM will both face scrutiny for their role in one of the deadliest construction accidents in recent history.