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'I came today to say goodbye': Families of FIU bridge collapse victims observe anniversary

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 3/16/2019 By Martin Vassolo, Miami Herald
a view of a city street filled with lots of traffic: An aerial photo shows the fallen Florida International University bridge. It had developed cracks in the days before the collapse, which occurred on March 15, 2018. © Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS An aerial photo shows the fallen Florida International University bridge. It had developed cracks in the days before the collapse, which occurred on March 15, 2018.

MIAMI - It's been a year since Orlando Duran stood at the corner of Southwest Eighth Street and 109th Avenue.

His 18-year-old daughter, Alexa, was trapped under 950 tons of concrete following the collapse of a pedestrian bridge, which had stretched above idle traffic before crashing down at 1:47 p.m. on March 15, 2018. Five others died in the chain reaction of structural failure that would come to spawn at least 18 lawsuits from victims' families and others against 25 defendants involved in the bridge project.

"The last time I was here, my daughter's car was being pulled out. It's a hurt that is indescribable. I can't forget it." Orlando Duran said. "We were not able to have an open-casket funeral. I got her body in a plastic bag."

Duran was the youngest victim of the tragedy. Five motorists below were crushed to death, and one construction worker toiling on the bridge died. Eight others were injured, including one bridge worker who was placed into a medically induced coma by doctors.

On Friday afternoon, at 1:47 p.m., Duran and his wife, Gina, watched as family friends released nearly two dozen white, pink and purple balloons into the overcast sky. They wore T-shirts and pins bearing the FIU student's face. The last remnants of the doomed bridge - two derelict support structures - framed Gina Duran's line of sight as cars whizzed along and current students carried on about their day.

"She loved balloons," Gina Duran said, struggling to speak through tears. "Every time she had a party, we had balloons for her."

Duran's parents, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit last year against construction company MCM, Figg Bridge Engineers and other subcontractors on the project, expressed frustration with the glacial pace at which the lawsuit is winding its way through the judicial system. They lamented that none of the defendants, who their attorney had said would include FIU, reached out to offer their condolences or accept blame for not shutting off traffic to the Tamiami Trail while construction crews worked on the 174-foot span.

On March 6, an attorney for Miami-based MCM - the company is also known as Magnum Construction Management LLC and previously as Munilla Construction Management - said the business will seek to cover up to $54 million in damages via insurers. The company has filed for bankruptcy.

"I am unpleasantly surprised after one year nothing has been done," Orlando Duran said before laying roses on the sidewalk near where his daughter died. "I could not say goodbye, so I came today to say goodbye."

A concrete support truss in the doomed bridge developed cracks 10 days before the span was lifted into place and subsequently collapsed. Independent engineers who examined photographs and documents told The Miami Herald that the cracks were a "red flag signaling potentially critical structural problems."

The bridge was fabricated on the side of the road using a technique known as accelerated bridge construction and hoisted into place in a matter of hours. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the collapse. The agency has not yet issued a final report but said design defects likely played a factor in the collapse.

Flags on campus flew at half-staff as Deacon Ralph Gazitua led the campus community in a moment of silence. The bells of the Graham Center rang six times.

"Heavenly Father, we humbly ask that you watch over those that we have lost: Alberto Arias, Navaro Brown, Brandon Brownfield, Alexa Duran, Rolando Fraga, Osvaldo Gonzalez," Gazitua said. "We pray for their families and friends. Bring them comfort and consolation. Bring them strength."

The families of Duran and Brownfield, 39, opted to remember their loved ones from the site of their deaths, the location of the collapsed bridge.

"It's just another milestone," said Debbie Brownfield, who wore a memorial shirt for her son. "This is where my son died."

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