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Bridge collapses in Pittsburgh, hours before Biden arrives to discuss infrastructure

There were no serious injuries reported.

  • By Patrick Doyle, Margaret J. Krauss, Julia Zenkevich, Sarah Schneider/ WESA
A Port Authority bus that was on a bridge when it collapsed Friday Jan. 28, 2022, is visible in Pittsburgh's East End.  A two-lane bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh early Friday, prompting rescuers to rappel nearly 150 feet (46 meters) while others formed a human chain to help rescue multiple people from a dangling bus.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

A Port Authority bus that was on a bridge when it collapsed Friday Jan. 28, 2022, is visible in Pittsburgh's East End. A two-lane bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh early Friday, prompting rescuers to rappel nearly 150 feet (46 meters) while others formed a human chain to help rescue multiple people from a dangling bus.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(Pittsburgh) — The Fern Hollow Bridge over Frick Park collapsed this morning. Local officials said 10 people had been injured and three had been transported for hospital treatment, but there were no serious injuries.

The collapse of the two-lane bridge prompted rescuers to rappel nearly 150 feet, while others formed a human chain to help rescue multiple people from a dangling bus.

Pittsburgh Public Safety is asking drivers to avoid the area of Forbes and Braddock avenues.

The collapse came just hours before a planned visit by President Joe Biden to the city. The White House said that Biden would still be making the trip, during which he would discuss a $1 trillion infrastructure package that includes money for bridge maintenance.

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 with Gainey, Fitzgerald, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U. S. Sen. Bob Casey, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, state Sen. Jay Costa, state Rep. Dan Frankel and others. He walked to the to the edge of the collapse, then huddled in conversation with officials, police and public safety employees at the scene, blocked by yellow caution tape and jersey barriers.

In pool video from the scene, he 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. ”

At a press conference at the scene, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said there were “minor injuries, not life-threatening.” He added that he had received calls from Biden and Gov. Tom Wolf and that repairs would take time. “This is a major artery, a lot of work needs to be done.”

Mayor Ed Gainey also spoke at the scene of Biden’s planned visit later today and 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 collapse also involved a “massive gas leak, but that is now under control. We had several families evacuate.”

A spokesperson for Peoples Gas says a 16-inch diameter distribution pipe ran along the bottom of the Fern Hollow bridge; it is common practice for utilities 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 called to complain of no heat, and the spokesperson said they have since shifted gas from other distribution lines to customers.

A Port Authority spokesperson said a 61B-Braddock-Swissvale bus headed outbound on the Fern Hollow Bridge was nearly at the east side of the bridge when the bridge began to collapse. The operator and two passengers are fine, although Jones said they were transported for care.

UPMC Presbyterian said it was treating three adult patients, all in fair condition, for injuries related to the collapse.

In a statement, the White House said Biden would proceed with his planned trip to Pittsburgh.

“Our team is in touch with state and local officials on the ground as they continue to gather information about the cause of the collapse,” the statement said. “The President is grateful to the first responders who rushed to assist the drivers who were on the bridge at the time.”

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.”

“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.

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.

O’Connor said that the structure had been inspected in the fall of 2021 by a third-party contractor. “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 added, “There was no indication that we needed to shut this down.”

Shimko frequently runs on Tranquil Trail in Frick Park, directly below the bridge, and 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.

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.”

The National Traffic Safety Board said they will have a team on site this afternoon.

PennDOT has not yet made any statements and could not be reached for comment.

Impact on businesses, schools

Due to the impact of the bridge collapse as well as high call-offs among bus drivers, all Pittsburgh Public Schools K-5, K-8 and 6-8 and Special Schools will transition to remote learning today. High schools and 6-12 schools will continue in-person learning. The district will still operate on a two-hour delay schedule.

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 in to work because of the collapse, but otherwise, owner-manager Judy Caric, 73, doesn’t think 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 around 6, he said. He thinks 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 and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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