DOT blames contractor for US 19 overpass girder failure - WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken

DOT blames contractor for US 19 overpass girder failure

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FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson

Moments before two semi-tractor trailers struck a sagging beam at the U.S. 19 overpass at State Road 60 in Clearwater May 6, Laura Garrabrant was sitting in her car at the intersection chatting with her sister on a cell phone. Suddenly she saw a 100-ton girder swaying like a piece of canvas in the wind.

"Then the overpass appeared to twist and shift down," Garrabrant told the DOT in an email the next day. "This may have taken 3-5 seconds."

(READ Garrabrant's entire email here)

"She saw the buckling and then the truck hit it," said Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson. "So we believe it happened very quickly."

Now, the DOT also believes it knows why the beam failed and places blame squarely on the contractor, Hubbard Construction.

The DOT reports that during the demolition of the old U.S. 19 overpass crews cut up the roadway above the steel girders and removed the concrete in sections. According to DOT daily construction logs from April 24-May 6, some of the concrete from the roadway demolition fell into the tub-like girders and workers removed that debris on a daily basis.

(READ a DOT letter to Hubbard Construction)

But the DOT now reports that other concrete chunks apparently fell unnoticed into the crevice between the end of the failed steel beam and the north wall of the overpass, setting in motion a near-disaster.

Because the concrete was wedged tightly into that end space, the beam was not able to expand in the midday heat without deforming. It buckled much like a plastic straw would bend with pressure applied by a fingertip at each end.

"We think that actually prevented the girder from being able to expand and contract with normal temperatures," Carson said. "It just buckled and twisted in the middle."

The result was nearly catastrophic as two semi-tractor trailers struck the sagging 200 foot long girder while driving under the overpass.

An estimated 59,000 vehicles pass through that intersection on any given day. The sagging beam weighed 100 tons and would have crushed anything in its path if it had failed completely and dropped to the pavement below.

"It swayed back and forth as if the wind was gently blowing it," wrote Garrabrant. "It appeared to be in slow motion."

Carson told Eight On Your Side that Hubbard Construction may now face a downgrade of its state contractor rating as a result of the mishap. Financial penalties are also possible due to the forced detour that tied up traffic for two days while road workers removed all four steel beams from the old overpass as part of the $113 million 2.5 mile project to rebuild that stretch of U.S.19.

Meanwhile, Garrabrant won't likely forget what she saw that day and what it sounded like when the truck hit the girder.

"Screeching metal on metal," Garrabrant wrote. "I saw him brake right away and then pull over once he cleared the intersection."

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