NTSB Chair: Fern Hollow Bridge damage 'takes your breath away'
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said they expect to issue a preliminary report on the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in about 10 days, but that report will deal primarily with “factual information” and will not address the probable cause of the bridge’s failure.
In a news briefing Saturday night, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said investigators will work at the bridge site for several days to inspect and photograph the bridge and surrounding wreckage, and identify “areas we might want to look at more.”
She said she was unsure how long they would remain in Pittsburgh before shifting their work to their offices and laboratories.
The full investigation, however, will be a “lengthy process" and will take between 12-18 months to complete, she said.
The NTSB team arrived in Pittsburgh Friday night, hours after the bridge collapsed at 6:40 a.m., injuring 10 people and sending several cars and a Port Authority bus careening with it as it crumpled into a ravine in Frick Park. The collapse of the bridge, which connected Squirrel Hill and Regent Square, severed a vital transportation artery through Pittsburgh’s East End.
Homendy said engineers from the Federal Highway Administration are assisting the NTSB team, which on Saturday began documenting wreckage at the site, inspecting the bridge structure and looking for evidence of corrosion or cracking that could help to determine why it collapsed, she said.
A crash reconstruction expert also mapped the site, using a drone to fly over, around and under the bridge, she said.
After viewing the underside of the bridge and the Port Authority bus and cars that went down with it, Homendy described the damage as “massive,” saying “We’re really fortunate that no one died.”
“When I look at the position of the bus and the position of the vehicles, I’m really thankful that no one lost their life in the collapse,” she said. “[The damage] takes your breath away.”
During its investigation, the NTSB will collect and review inspection reports and maintenance records for the bridge, as well as video obtained from a camera at a nearby business, Homendy said. Investigators also will review video from nine cameras installed on the Port Authority bus, which if undamaged, would show multiple views from the bus.
Other factors for review: traffic counts for the bridge, records documenting its inspection history and related state procedures, weight requirements for the bridge and how they may have been affected by design changes, and the effect of road treatments on the bridge.
“This is going to be a long, technical investigation,” she said. “It will take us some time to go through documents after we leave the scene.”
Homendy asked people who live, work or frequent the neighborhoods around the bridge to share recent photos, video or observations about its condition with investigators by submitting them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
She also said its collapse “should serve as a call to action,” noting that its condition had been rated as “poor” and citing statistics about other bridges in Allegheny County and Pennsylvania. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s bridges were deemed to be in poor condition in a 2018 review by the Pittsburgh section of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Various elements of the Fern Hollow Bridge ranged from poor to satisfactory prior to its collapse, according to PennDOT's Bridge Conditions page. The bridge’s substructure was deemed “satisfactory,” with some minor deterioration, while the deck and superstructure were rated “poor” where the deterioration of central elements “has advanced.”
“Certainly, we do have a crisis for our aging infrastructure,” including bridges, tunnels and pipelines, Homendy said. “[It is] something our states and the entire U.S. Government is going to have to deal with.”
As the NTSB team worked Saturday, recovery crews also erected heavy equipment that will be used to remove wreckage from the site, although it remained idle at midday Saturday. Curious community members stomped through snow and stopped at the corner of Braddock and Forbes Avenue throughout the morning, though police vehicles blocked much of their view.
A crane is positioned at the corner of Forbes and Briarcliff Road. The corner where the bridge once stood is now a cliff. Onlookers noted the cars and the Port Authority bus still stranded on the mounds of crumbled concrete and twisted steel.
Frick Park will remain closed indefinitely while investigators and recovery crews work at the site. Despite the closure announcement, however, onlookers continued to walk in the park at midday Saturday.
Both Homendy and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy officials reminded people to stay out of the park, noting that conditions around the bridge site remain hazardous. Park rangers have blocked off trails and other areas closest to the site.
Local officials have said it may take a year or more to replace the city-owned bridge. 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.
Gov. Tom Wolf has signed a proclamation of disaster emergency for Allegheny County to ensure a quick response for reconstructing the bridge.
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.
WESA's Cindi Lash contributed to this report.