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.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.