Bridge collapses in Frick Park, hours before Biden arrives in Pittsburgh to discuss infrastructure
A federal investigation to determine why the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed Friday into Frick Park could take up to 18 months, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said.
In a news conference Friday night, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said the agency's team of investigators had begun working at the site of the bridge collapse to preserve and map it, and to collect perishable evidence that will be used to eventually issue findings and recommendations "to improve safety nationally." The agency also will bring in a crash reconstructionist to assist with its investigation, which could take 12-18 months to complete, Homendy said.
The Fern Hollow Bridge, a vital connection that carried more than 14,000 cars daily between Squirrel Hill and Regent Square, collapsed around 6:39 a.m. Friday, sending several cars and a Port Authority bus tumbling into the ravine below it in Frick Park. Pittsburgh Public Safety officials said 10 people were injured and four were treated at local hospitals, but there were no serious injuries.
The collapse of the bridge prompted rescuers to rappel nearly 150 feet to reach people in cars below it, while others formed a human chain to help rescue several people from the dangling Port Authority bus. The collapse came just hours before a planned visit by President Joe Biden to the city.
Homendy, who arrived in Pittsburgh Friday afternoon with the NTSB team, said structural and materials engineers and other investigators would begin their work by using a drone and taking other photographs to map the crash site at rest. They also were moving cranes and other equipment into place above the ravine and were coordinating their work with other local and state agencies, she said.
"Then we'll begin the process of removing things — it's kind of like peeling the layers of an onion — to see where things were, where they ended up in the collapse . . . for indications where it began" during the next few days, said Dennis Collins, the NTSB investigator in charge.
An engineering team will look for signs of stress, fractures, rust or other deterioration that could point to the cause of the bridge failure, Collins said, adding: "Unfortunately, it's been my experience that all collapses are different."
Earlier Friday afternoon, Biden made a brief stop at the collapse site at 1:18 p.m., detouring his motorcade from its planned route to visit the Squirrel Hill side of the bridge with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Gov. Tom Wolf, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, U.S. Reps. Conor Lamb and Mike Doyle, state Sen. Jay Costa, state Rep. Dan Frankel and others. He walked to the edge of the collapsed bridge, then huddled in conversation with officials, police and public safety employees at the site, blocked by yellow caution tape and jersey barriers.
In pool video from the scene, Biden could be heard commenting on the number of bridges in Pittsburgh. He also said: “We are going to fix all of them. That’s not a joke. "
Earlier Friday during a press conference at the scene, Fitzgerald said there were "minor injuries, not life-threatening." He added that he had received calls from Biden and Wolf and that repairs would take time. "This is a major artery, a lot of work needs to be done."
Gainey also spoke about Biden's visit about the passage of the federal infrastructure plan: "It’s critical to southwestern Pennsylvania and the city. We know we have bridges we need to take care of. For him coming today to talk about why this funding is so important . . . this is critical we get this funding."
Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones said the bridge collapse also involved a "massive gas leak," prompting the evacuation of several homes near the bridge. Public safety and utility workers brought the leak under control quickly, however, and they allowed residents to return to those homes later in the morning.
A spokesperson for Peoples Gas said a 16-inch diameter distribution pipe ran along the bottom of the bridge; it is common practice for utility lines to be carried by bridges. Peoples Gas crews responded to a call before 7 a.m. Friday morning and cut the flow of gas to the line. Just three customers from the neighborhood called to complain of no heat, and the spokesperson said the utility has since shifted gas from other distribution lines to customers.
A Port Authority spokesperson said a 61B-Braddock-Swissvale bus headed outbound on the bridge was nearly at the east side of the bridge when the bridge began to crumple. The operator and two passengers were transported for hospital treatment.
UPMC Presbyterian said it treated three adult patients, all in fair condition, for injuries related to the collapse. Another person also sought treatment later at UPMC Shadyside; that person was treated and released, city officials said. Most of the other injured people were first responders who suffered sprains or "slip-and-falls," Jones said.
By nightfall, city emergency response teams at the site had begun transitioning from response to recovery, Jones said at a 5 p.m. news conference. Emergency response teams had finished their search for more victims, and Jones said he was confident that no one was trapped under the bridge, although five cars and the Port Authority bus remained at the bottom of the ravine.
Also at that briefing, Jones provided more information about the experience of motorists on the bridge, saying "They rode the bridge down" in their vehicles when it started to fall.
"It wasn’t a sudden jolt but more of an incline," he said, which likely prevented more serious injuries."[Rescuers] helped them out of their vehicles."
City officials are in talks with the Port Authority about rerouting buses while the area is under construction. Frick Park remains closed indefinitely, and city officials offered no timeline for reopening it.
Bridge is one of many in "poor" condition
Various elements of the city-owned Fern Hollow Bridge range from poor to satisfactory, according to PennDOT's Bridge Conditions page. The bridge’s substructure is deemed “satisfactory,” though it has some minor deterioration, while the deck and superstructure are “poor” where the deterioration of central elements “has advanced.”
City Councilor Corey O'Connor, who represents the district where the bridge collapse occurred, told WESA that the city had done "some beam replacement a few years back" on the bridge. The structure was inspected in fall 2021 by a third-party contractor, he said.
"Obviously, the inspection came out and it was a 'poor' inspection, but a lot of our bridges can't live up to the standards because we don't have the money to fix them," he said, adding "There was no indication that we needed to shut this down."
“Engineers are risk-averse by nature,” said Jonathan Shimko, past president of the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. So if there’s an element of the bridge that scores poorly, that will drive the bridge’s overall score, he said.
Shimko frequently runs on Tranquil Trail in Frick Park, directly below the bridge. When he first read about the collapse Friday morning, he was surprised, calling it “a major bridge,” and one that wasn’t particularly on his radar, he said.
The state of bridges in the region and in Pennsylvania, however, has long been a concern for ASCE, he said. In the last full report on the state’s infrastructure in 2018, bridges as a whole scored a D+; at the time, nearly 20 percent of them were in poor condition, Shimko said. That is almost twice the national average, according to the National Bridge Inventory, maintained by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.
However, he cautioned against panic, or thinking that “all of our infrastructure is in imminent condition of failure, because that is not the case.”
When asked what could have contributed to the bridge’s deterioration, Shimko said it would not be appropriate to comment, because the focus needs to be on securing the site. However, he noted that many infrastructure failures, such as the sinkhole that opened in Downtown Pittsburgh in 2019, result from not a single actor or event, but the culmination of a number of events.
“A lot of which are the out-of-sight, out-of-mind nature of our infrastructure,” he said. “In a bridge, there’s a lot of steel, but a lot of times it’s wrapped in concrete or its supports are covered in a lot of earth.”
That makes it difficult to predict or know what the conditions are without “money and investment to make sure we can maintain what we have built," he said.
The collapse, however, will escalate the necessity of repairing it to "priority No. 1 for the administration," city Controller Michael Lamb said. Finding the funding for those repairs is likely to start with PennDOT and potentially other sources through the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation, he said.
"A lot of things have to happen first, including [an] investigation into why the bridge collapsed," Lamb said, adding that he "wouldn't want to venture a guess" on the potential cost of repairs.
PennDOT has not yet made any statements and could not be reached for comment. But Wolf on Friday signed a proclamation of disaster emergency for Allegheny County to ensure a quick response for reconstruction.
The declaration authorizes state agencies to use all available resources and personnel, as necessary, to respond to the emergency resulting from the collapse and to waive bidding and contract procedures that could delay repairs.
Impact on neighborhood, schools
Nelson Chipman, who lives with his wife and two college-age children on nearby East End Avenue, said he was shoveling snow from the sidewalk outside his house when he heard “this unnatural noise” shortly before 7 a.m.
“I had just finished and was putting the shovel back on the porch. It was almost like [the noise] was in slow motion, almost like a UFO was landing on the bridge. Metal was twisting, [and] then [there was] a giant ‘whooshing’ sound,” said Chipman, the vice president of academic affairs at Point Park University.
Unsure about the source of the noise, Chipman walked to the intersection of Forbes and Braddock Avenues, then toward the bridge. Although it was still dark, he realized “there was a giant, dark void” in front of him where the center of the bridge used to be, he said.
“It was quite eerie,” he said. “A jogger was yelling at me, but the ‘whooshing’ sound was so loud that I couldn’t hear her.”
As he looked across the ravine to the Squirrel Hill side of the crumpled bridge, Chipman saw car headlights turn the corner at Forbes Avenue and start down the hill.
“I saw the headlights drop off into the abyss,” he said. “Instinctively, I ran to the bridge — it was a surreal state — but then I was repelled by the smell of natural gas.”
Chipman said he reached for his cell phone to summon help, but then he heard emergency sirens coming closer, and he realized that other cars were stopping before reaching the bridge.
“I was thinking, ‘I don’t need to get people out of cars or anything,’ so I went back,” he said. “It was all otherworldly. I was thinking about how many times we’ve crossed that bridge — alone, as a couple, with our kids — and it struck quite a nerve. I needed to go take a walk.”
Due to the impact of the collapse on bus routes as well as high call-offs among bus drivers, all Pittsburgh Public Schools K-5, K-8 and 6-8 and Special Schools transitioned to remote learning today. High schools and 6-12 schools continued in-person learning.
The bridge is a main artery to access South Braddock Avenue in Regent Square. The street is lined with businesses that open early: a daycare, a coffee shop, restaurants and a large beer distributor. Employees and owners said it’s been a fairly regular day so far, but “everyone is talking about it,” said Gina DeAntonis, 19, who works at the 61B Cafe.
Two employees who work at Smashed Waffles couldn’t get to work because of the collapse, but otherwise, owner-manager Judy Caric, 73, said she didn't believe it will have a big impact on customer traffic.
“So many of our customers are delivery, neighborhood-people who walk in,” she said. “But it’s scary. We just all pray that it’s not going to be too bad as far as injuries.”
Shane Rothrauff, 29, said he was just happy no one was hurt. Rothrauff manages McBroom Distribution and lives above the store. He woke up to the sounds of sirens, he said. He fears the bridge’s collapse could have a significant impact on their business.
“Thinking about how long the bridge is going to be out of service … it’s going to affect us long-term,” he said.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated. WESA's Chris Potter, Ariel Worthy and Cindi Lash, as well as the Associated Press, contributed to this report.