Sen. Bill Nelson demands feds stop blocking release of FIU bridge records
Aug 25, 2018 \\ Nicholas Nehamas and Caitlin Ostroff, Miami Herald
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson sent a letter Friday to the federal agency investigating the Florida International University bridge collapse demanding that it drop legal actions preventing the release of public records concerning the deadly accident.
In the letter, Nelson told the National Transportation Safety Board that blocking the release of the records to the Miami Herald was “appalling” and “not in the interest of public safety.”
“The victims’ families and the public need to know what steps regulators did or did not take to ensure the safe construction of the FIU pedestrian bridge,” wrote Nelson, a Democrat being challenged by Gov. Rick Scott for re-election.
Additionally, Nelson pointed to cracks discovered in other bridges around Florida, including one in Pensacola Bay, saying the FIU bridge disaster “could serve as a cautionary tale for other federally funded bridge projects in Florida that may involve inadequate supervision.”
Christopher O’Neil, a spokesman for the NTSB, said Friday that the agency had “received Senator Nelson’s letter and will respond to him.”
The FIU bridge fell March 15, killing six people. Alarming cracks had been discovered in the days before the collapse but Southwest Eighth Street, which runs under the span, was not closed. The bridge had been raised into place on March 10.
The Herald sued the Florida Department of Transportation in May for records that might explain why the road was not shut down, including minutes of a meeting held the morning of the collapse. The NTSB had instructed FDOT not to release the records, saying their publication could threaten the effectiveness of its investigation.
A state court ordered the release of the documents Tuesday, ruling that they should be available for inspection under Florida’s broad public-records law. But on Thursday the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern Florida, acting for the NTSB, asked a federal court take over the case and suspend that decision. A federal judge agreed to a stay after an emergency telephonic hearing, meaning the records will remain hidden from the public until a new ruling is issued by the federal court.
McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for Scott, pointed out that FDOT has said it believes the records are public and that the department was prepared to release them Thursday in accordance with the state court’s order.
“Federal investigators have prevented that,” Lewis said.
Scott’s office did not immediately respond when asked if Scott would send a similar letter to the NTSB.
Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Miami Republican who represents the FIU area, called the bridge collapse a tragedy and said the congressman hopes all parties will be held accountable.
“The congressman appreciates that FDOT has already stated their desire to release the records to the public, and he hopes NTSB will cooperate to make that happen as swiftly as possible,” Rodriguez wrote in a statement.
Engineering experts consulted by the Herald said the cracks in a key support truss were a sign of the bridge’s imminent structural failure. They said the road should have been shut down after the cracks were discovered.