The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse that Sounded the Alarm on U.S. Infrastructure | Retro Report

It was a commuter’s worst nightmare. A major interstate bridge collapsed during
rush hour, One of the main iconic bridges in the Twin
Cities has collapsed. The entire bridge is in the water. The 35W bridge is in the water. leaving dozens of cars and trucks trapped
in the wreckage, The flames are very close to that school bus,
there are cars on fire right now. Children were running away from this, just
horrified. and sending others plunging into the Mississippi River. This is really awful. It’s the most awful thing I’ve ever seen. I just couldn’t believe anything like that
could ever happen. As investigators combed through the rubble,
the collapse sounded an alarm. Are the bridges we drive over every day really safe? A bridge in America just shouldn’t fall down. The collapse led to promises to fix decaying
bridges across the country. But how much progress has been made? It was a hot Wednesday evening in Minneapolis,
the height of rush hour. Construction crews were resurfacing the forty-year-old
I-35W bridge when, at 6:05pm, it began to shake. I heard a beam snap. I heard a clank, just a loud clank, and I was falling. I remember just grabbing the steering wheel
and thinking, “Ride it out, ride it out, ride it out,” not knowing how far I was going to fall. It was an ten-story drop. Garrett Ebling’s car fell head-on into concrete. Lindsay Walz found herself underwater, out
of air, trapped inside her car. I knew that there would be no one else there
to, you know, save me. I started to think about my family and hope
that they would know that I was thinking about them. There’s hundreds of cars down in the river.
Bring everything you’ve got. I think there could be people trapped in cars
is what I’m really worried about. Walz somehow made it to the surface where
she waited for help. I remember just saying over and over again,
“I don’t know how I got out of my car. I don’t know how I got out of my car.”
And it was just like on repeat. They came up to my car, the found me.
The water was up to my shoulder level. Um, mouth covered in blood. It was unlikely that I was going to make it
through the, through that night. At the hospital, doctors said they had never
seen anything like Ebling. I broke both my ankles, I broke my left arm,
severed the colon, ruptured diaphragm, collapsed lung, broke my jaw in three places. My mom said the only way that she could recognize
me was by my feet. One hundred and ninety people were on the
bridge when it collapsed. By nightfall, thirteen were dead. It looks like the scene at the bridge, from
the information we have, is largely a recovery operation at this time. With bodies still in the water, questions
were being raised as to who was responsible. Obviously, this is a catastrophe of historic
proportions for Minnesota. The media began to scrutinize the bridge, and how well Minnesota’s transportation department maintained it. It’s obvious there were troubling safety questions about this bridge years before the collapse. Annual inspections had noted assorted cracks,
corrosion, and fatigue. So why was the state of Minnesota all the
way up to the governor’s office telling us this bridge was safe? Under criticism, Governor Tim Pawlenty
defended his record. There were problems with the bridge, but not
a recommendation to immediately close it. Again, just because it falls in this category
doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unsafe. We have to let the investigation
and review process work. Investigators from the NTSB, the National
Transportation Safety Board, arrived within 24 hours to figure out what went wrong. Officials are looking at everything, from
the weight of construction equipment on the bridge to traffic patterns, vibrations, the
weather, even the kind of solvent used melt the ice and snow in the winter. Anything is possible. And we will not rule anything out. We will not rule anything out. Investigators soon began to rule something in. Nearly 300 tons of construction materials
had been placed on the bridge, right over a flaw in the bridge’s design. The NTSB today said a design mistake involving
16 separate plates from the center span was what they called the critical factor in that
deadly accident. The steel connectors known as gusset plates
were simply too thin. A half inch thick when they should have been
twice that. Instead of being the strongest parts of the
bridge, they were some of the weakest. The NTSB’s conclusion meant that a mistake
made 40 years earlier had brought the bridge down. And the flaw went undetected because it wasn’t
standard practice for inspectors to later look for such design errors. When you’ve got a gusset plate that should
have been an inch thick and it’s only a half, that’s going to be a problem. Tom Johnson says the accident, while determined
to have been caused to the design flaw, also also brought attention to a bridge that inspectors
had rated “in poor condition” for 17 consecutive years. You don’t get rated “in poor condition”
for lack of paint. There’s serious problems with it. Among other things, past inspections showed
a corroded roller bearing wasn’t moving the way it was supposed to. The NTSB said it wasn’t a factor in the
collapse, but an engineer hired by survivors suing two bridge contractors says it was a
problem that should have been fixed. When steel heats up, it wants to expand. So if the roller bearings are seized and the
bridge can’t expand, then the loads get worse and worse until finally it’s to the point where it’s just ready to pop. Inspectors also noted these gusset plates
had bowed from stress, but missed the significance. There were opportunities to fix the roller bearings. There were opportunities to find the design
error with the gusset plates and to retrofit them. Those opportunities were missed. Guidelines have since been issued to better
detect problems with gusset plates and bridge design. But an investigation by the Minnesota legislature
sought to find out why the bridge hadn’t been reinforced given its history. Lack of management and lack of identifying of red flags has darn near brought this department down. The legislature found that at the time ofthe collapse, the state’s transportation department was underfunded and overworked, and had to prioritize which bridges to address first. We came away from our investigation that these
are professionals trying to do their job, but they had some very severe restrictions
about, you know, what they could do, largely because of lack of money. State officials refer to bridges like the
35W as “budget busters.” There’s a tension between spending money for
new roads or new interchanges or putting money into the repair of a bridge. That bridge was standing yesterday, it’s standing
today, why won’t it be standing tomorrow? The lesson is that you’ve got to maintain bridges. In February 2008, Minnesota raised its gas
tax for the first time in 20 years and embarked on an ambitious program to renovate bridges across the state, a $2.1 billion effort spread over a decade. The new 35W bridge is state-of-the-art, built
to last 100 years. While many states have stepped up bridge inspections
and repairs, helped by the federal stimulus, engineers say it is still not enough, and
in some parts of the country, they are doing little more than triage. They all know that the money is not there. So, all they can do is the best they can do
and hope that these failures don’t happen in their jurisdictions. The nation’s 607,000 bridges continue to age, and many carry traffic beyond which they were designed. One in four are rated “deficient” and
one in thirty were built like the one in Minneapolis: “fracture critical,” where if one critical piece were to fail, the entire bridge could fail. Barry LePatner spent years mapping
the bridges in both categories, 8,000 of them, which he says are most at risk of collapse. It troubles me that the federal government
doesn’t see this issue the same as they see a crack in an engine on an airplane. It’s the same thing to me. Transportation officials say bridges that
fall in both categories undergo rigorous inspections, and are closed if they are unsafe. But they continue to make headlines. This bridge in Indiana could have collapsed in 2011, had an enormous crack not been discovered in time. This bridge north of Seattle did, in 2013
after being hit by a truck. You’re looking at live pictures where a bridge
on I-5 collapsed, taking several cars with it. The bridge was considered “fracture critical,” meaning if one major part fails, the rest does too. There is no back up. There is no safety net; they’re all vulnerable. And we should be immediately finding the funds
to fix those bridges and give them greater structural integrity because they don’t
have any right now.

5 Replies to “The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse that Sounded the Alarm on U.S. Infrastructure | Retro Report”

  1. This has a bit too much of a entertainment-dramatic feel to it in my opinion.

    EDIT/ADD: Still a thumbs up though.

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