How do forensic engineers investigate bridge collapses, like the one in Miami?

The collapsed pedestrian bridge in Miami. Image: Getty.

On 15 March, a 950-ton partially assembled pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in Miami suddenly collapsed onto the busy highway below, killing six people and seriously injuring nine. Forensic engineers are taking centre stage in the ongoing investigation to find out what happened and why – and, crucially, to learn how to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

I’m not actively involved in this investigation, but I’ve been a forensic engineer for nearly 20 years and am the 2018 president of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers. Similar to forensic scientists, we visit scenes of disasters and crimes to determine what role engineering practices played in what happened.

The first step in any forensic investigation, collecting evidence, often can’t begin until survivors are rescued and victims are recovered. Those operations displace material and can damage evidence, which means forensic engineers must study the emergency response as well, to be able to tell whether, for instance, a support column collapsed during the event or was destroyed to reach a victim in need of help. During the FIU recovery efforts rescuers used large equipment to break up massive blocks of concrete so that victims’ bodies could be recovered.


In Miami at the moment, forensic engineers and technicians from the National Transportation Safety Board are on the scene. Right now they’re collecting samples of materials from the bridge to test for their physical properties. They’re reviewing drawings and plans, and examining both industry standards and site engineers’ calculations to understand what was supposed to be built – to compare with what was actually constructed. They’ll look at photographs and videos of the collapse to identify the sequence of events and locations of key problems. Of course, they’ll also talk to witnesses to find out what workers and passersby saw and heard around the time of its collapse.

Then they’ll combine and analyse all that data and information to identify as clearly as possible what went wrong, in what order. Often there are many factors, each leading to or amplifying the next, that ultimately caused the disaster. Putting that puzzle together is a key part of the forensic engineer’s role.

Weakness in partial structure

The FIU bridge was being built using a method called “accelerated bridge construction,” with separate sections that needed to be put together: the footings were installed beside the road and the span was built nearby and lifted into place just days before the collapse. In a plan like that, each piece must be able to withstand the forces acting on it as they’re all being put together. A weakness in one place can cause problems elsewhere, ultimately leading to catastrophe.

Two key elements of the bridge design, the tall centre pylon and pipe supports, were not yet in place when the structure collapsed. They hadn’t been scheduled to be added until later in the process – and the bridge wasn’t slated to open until next year, so it’s likely that the project’s designers and engineers expected the bridge segment to hold while construction continued.

An artist’s rendering of what the final bridge was supposed to look like. Image: City of Sweetwater.

Part of a forensic engineering evaluation will investigate whether that was a reasonable expectation, and whether those missing elements reduced the strength of what was there enough for it to collapse.

Searching for clues

There are some other publicly available clues, too, that shed light on avenues likely under investigation already. Dashcam video of the bridge collapse seems to indicate that the initial failure was very close to the north end of the structure. It has been reported that a couple of days before the collapse, a crack had been discovered near the bridge’s north end.

Additionally, the bridge span might have been either undergoing stress testing or other adjustments when it collapsed. It’s too early to say now – but the inquiry will certainly reveal – whether the crack and the stress testing put too much load at the north end of the bridge.

There will be other questions too, like “Why didn’t they use temporary supports to shore up the bridge?” There may be a perfectly sensible explanation: Perhaps the bridge was supposed to be strong enough to support itself, for example. Or maybe temporary supports would have created a traffic hazard on the road below.

Some of those questions will not be entirely engineering-related. For example, many are asking “Why wasn’t the road closed?” The Tamiami Trail was shut down for a few hours while the bridge span was put in place. But then it was reopened to cars – a decision that would have been informed by engineering, of course, but could also have been influenced by concerns about public safety or traffic congestion.

The ConversationAt the moment, many of the questions the public has are also being investigated by forensic engineers. Their goal is to ensure that eventually those questions are all answered, and many more as well, about designs, materials, processes, procedures and safety precautions. Those lessons will inform not just any replacement for this particular bridge in Miami but future bridge construction projects elsewhere in the country and around the world, as the rest of the engineering community takes lessons from whatever the investigation uncovers, so builders can avoid similar mistakes – and tragedies. In a sense, it is fortunate that one of the leading centres for accelerated bridge construction is right on the FIU campus.

Martin Gordon, Professor of Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering Technology, Rochester Institute of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.