For a quarter century, inspectors urged repairs on the Fern Hollow Bridge, but Pittsburgh failed to carry out most of the work
Nearly 25 years before the spectacular collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in January, inspectors found something under the span that prompted them to make a simple, but crucial, recommendation.
“Paint areas where previous and active leakage occurs, primarily the frame legs,” inspectors told Pittsburgh officials in 1997.
The Federal Highway Administration had urged that “uncoated weathering steel” — the kind used in Fern Hollow — needed to be painted near the girders and in overlapping joint areas to prevent the metal from deteriorating and creating a risk of “structural failure.”
But the fix never happened.
In the ensuing years, the recommendations came at an unrelenting pace: repair crumbling and loose concrete on the deck; fix the “slab drains” so they did not drip water and road salt onto the steel under the bridge; seal the bridge deck and replace the deck concrete that was crumbling; reinforce or replace the cross-bracing that was deteriorating in the superstructure that holds up the bridge.
Year after year, inspectors urged the same repairs, and every year, the city failed to follow the recommendations in a cascading series of lapses that would doom the bridge and jeopardize the safety of thousands of motorists who crossed it each day, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation found.
Taken all together, the repairs that could have been carried out since 1997 ranged from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands. Now, the cost of replacing the entire bridge: $23.5 million, and counting.
“There’s no question in my mind that [the city] dropped the ball and refused to invest money in maintenance on this bridge and that led to its failure,” said Hota GangaRao, an engineering professor and director of the Constructed Facilities Center at West Virginia University.
The state requires that inspectors record the status of each recommendation, and with each new report, inspectors take note of the city’s inaction. For nearly every recommendation, the inspectors wrote the same refrain: “Work not planned.”
The Post-Gazette previously reported on the severe deterioration of the bridge that inspectors turned up last year. But a trove of records recently obtained by the news organization — 14 inspections from PennDOT starting in 2005 — show the breadth and scope of failures that took place for decades.
Several experts who agreed to review the reports at the request of the Post-Gazette said they were startled by the quarter-century of inaction in the face of a bridge that was clearly approaching the end stages of its life.
Questions were raised by the experts not just about the city’s lack of action to repair the bridge, but the roles the private inspection firms and PennDOT — the state agency that oversees all bridge inspections — played in those decisions.
David Beck, a structural engineer in New Hampshire with more than a half century of experience in design and construction, said: “It’s just like the [Surfside, Florida] condo collapse that killed nearly 100 people: Maintenance just didn’t get done.”
Though the massive condo failure is still under investigation, experts say the design of the tower, concrete deterioration, and a lack of remedial work were all contributing causes to the collapse last year.
Inspectors’ alarm grew over time
Five passenger vehicles and one Port Authority bus — all carrying nine people — were on the bridge when it collapsed in the early morning of January 28, but no one was killed. In the hours after the disaster, state and local officials said it was a miracle that no one died.
Though the National Transportation Safety Board said in a May investigation update that only two people were seriously injured and two had minor injuries, attorneys for four of the people say that’s not the case: the injuries to all their clients were serious.
The driver of a car that landed upside down near the east end of the bridge, suffered broken bones in his neck, a fractured sternum and developed blood clots in his lungs. An elderly couple traveling in a car together sustained broken vertebrae in their backs. The driver of the Port Authority bus has undergone treatments for back, neck and shoulder injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“He keeps having nightmares about falling and wakes up all the time,” said Pete Giglione, an attorney for bus driver Daryl Luciani, who has still not returned to work. “It has been a very difficult time for him and his family.”
All the attorneys said they were disturbed by the reports obtained by the Post-Gazette that showed the city had failed to respond to the recommended repair work for so long.
“When do you stop passing the buck on peoples’ lives?” said Paul Ellis, an attorney for Velva and Tyrone Perry, the couple who both suffered broken vertebrae. “Whether you’re a city official or a structural engineer, when you see these inspections, at what point do you sound the alarm?”
“A lot of people had an opportunity to say and do something over the years — and didn’t,” he said. Attorneys for the other five people caught on the bridge could not be reached.
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s office would not answer questions, citing the ongoing federal investigation, and the city has refused to release nearly all of its own records of the disaster. Former Mayor Bill Peduto, who held office the last eight years, has not responded to interview requests.
All of the 14 inspection reports from 2005 to last year — obtained by the Post-Gazette after filing a Right To Know request with the state — were heavily redacted. The state blacked out all analysis and nearly all commentary from inspectors, as well as the names of the inspectors and the firms that employed them.
Inspectors’ September 2018 photos show the severed cross-bracing under the bridge’s west end before it was removed in January 2019
But the written observations and photos of the bridge’s deteriorating condition are visible, as well as the recommended maintenance and some limited commentary. That, combined with additional documents and emails the Post-Gazette obtained, show that inspectors were increasingly troubled by what they saw.
“Continue monitoring the intersecting welds located in both girders and all four of the frame legs during future inspections until repairs are made,” they wrote in a conclusion to their findings after the September, 2005 inspection.
They did not identify any emergency or immediate repairs in 2005, though they raised concerns about the rusted-out joints and crumbling beams. In fact, though the bridge was a relatively young 32-years-old at the time, the inspectors estimated the remaining life span at just 15 years.
That relatively short life expectancy showed “there were problems with the design and then with poor maintenance,” said Mr. Beck, after viewing the inspection report.
Those “intersecting welds” and the “frame legs” that caught the attention of inspectors in 2005 — part of which had to be removed in 2019 — were highlighted again in the next inspection two years later.
“The deteriorated cross bracing was identified in the bridge safety inspection report as an Immediate Repair deficiency. The cross bracing has significant section loss which could affect the load carrying ability of the bridge if not repaired,” Patrick Hassett, former assistant director of the city’s Department of Public Works and Bureau of Transportation and Engineering, wrote in 2007 after the inspection that year. At the time, he requested $300,000 to repair the bracing.
“If the current condition of the deteriorated cross bracing is not repair[ed] and deterioration continues, the load carrying ability of the bridge will decrease to the point of posting the bridge for a lower weight limit,” he added in the document.
A temporary fix for a permanent problem
What followed was a series of actions by the city that continues to baffle engineering experts.
In the same 2007 document, Mr. Hassett wrote the city would design the repairs itself. What emerged was a steel cable system to provide stability to a bridge that was losing the support of the original, deteriorating, steel beam, cross-frame bracing.
However, experts told the Post-Gazette that they were surprised the city would come up with such a solution — nearly one-inch-thick steel cables — to replace the beams that were originally designed to provide the kind of strength and stability that holds up large bridges.
“Maybe in the short term to brace something, but not in the long term,” said Roberto Leon, a construction engineering professor at Virginia Tech University. “I’ve talked to a couple friends who are also in the bridge world and they’ve also never heard of something like that.”
Mr. Hota agreed: “That’s like using a Band-Aid on a cancerous wound.”
But the city plunged ahead with the plan, installing the system of criss-crossing cables between both the west and east sets of frame legs under the bridge in May, 2009. That installation date is much earlier than previously known.
The city paid Michael Facchiano Contracting of Pittsburgh $147,733.12 to install the cables, according to documents obtained by the Post-Gazette and not previously reported.
Inspectors seemed to share Mr. Leon’s view that the cables should have been just a temporary fix.
Four months after they were installed, inspectors noted in a report that the city needed to continue monitoring the intersecting welds and frame legs until “permanent” repairs were made.
Mr. Leon pointed to the report to show the cables “were not intended as a permanent fix. If you’re looking for a smoking gun [about the city’s failures that led to the collapse] that’s as close as you’re going to get.”
Though the cables were tightened once in 2014, and part of the cross-frame bracing was removed in 2019, the city never made any additional repairs — permanent or otherwise — to the intersecting welds or the four frame legs before it collapsed 13 years later.
At the same time, the city was not addressing another key recommendation to keep water off the uncoated weathering steel superstructure, which experts say was the start of the bridge’s deterioration.
In the 2021 report, inspectors made six recommendations to prevent water from leaking to the superstructure below. All but one of those recommendations had been previously made — and ignored — in previous inspections dating back at least 20 years.
Mr. Hota said he was surprised by the inspectors’ repeated findings that there was cracking and spalling of concrete above and below the deck and sidewalk, and the “scuppers” — or bridge deck drains — were regularly completely clogged, which forced more water into openings that would leak onto the steel below the deck.
“That’s the first indication that something is wrong with the bridge, the cracking of the sidewalk and the curbs, and the leaking through the weep holes and clogging of scuppers,” he said. “The inspectors mention this in every report, the water leaking below. They mentioned that the girders and the [leg] frames are very moist. That’s a bad sign.”
The city would apparently regularly pave over Forbes Avenue, which passed over the bridge. But it only made the problem worse without other fixes.
“If you simply pave over it, then micro cracks form on the surface, water seeps through and settles between the new layer of pavement and the old material … and eventually leaks through to the steel below,” Mr. Hota said. “Sealing it [with a membrane] would have helped.”
“They’d write in the reports. ‘We still have these holes and some of them are getting bigger. And they say it over-and-over again. But nothing gets done.”
David Beck, structural engineer
That leaking water — particularly during the winter when it was laden with road salts — led to accelerating deterioration all over the bridge, and in frame legs and cross-frame bracing in particular. Report-after-report notes that the worst decay occurred where inspectors found water leaking from the bridge deck onto the steel below.
Just four years after the cables were installed, in the 2013 report, inspectors wrote: “The bracing on the frame legs have a number of large holes and their connection to the frame legs exhibit 100% section loss. More holes have formed in the frame legs’ web.”
Mr. Beck was struck by how inspectors repeated these warnings.
“They’d write in the reports. ‘We still have these holes and some of them are getting bigger,’” he noted. “And they say it over-and-over again. But nothing gets done.”
In another acknowledgement the cables were never seen as a permanent repair, the inspectors declared in 2013 that immediate action must be taken to “perform an analysis of the stability of the structure assuming that the cross braces are nonfunctional.”
It was that stability analysis — which is completely blacked out in the inspection report — that led to the bridge being posted for the first time with a 26-ton limit the next year. That weight limit posting in 2014 also meant the bridge had to be inspected annually instead of every two years, as it had been previously.
The reason given for setting a weight limit, according to the inspection reports: “Section loss on Bents 1 and 2.”
A “bent” refers to the sets of frame legs and their structural supports underneath the bridge. Bent 1 was the western set of frame legs, and Bent 2 was the eastern set.
In the first of the annual inspections, in 2014, inspectors focused their work on the bridge’s four frame legs, finding massive deterioration.
Like inspectors before them, they knew what was causing the problems, writing: “If the condition of the concrete deck and scuppers is not addressed, deterioration will accelerate.”
A chance to prevent collapse?
Four years after the weight limit was posted on Fern Hollow Bridge, for reasons that are not clear, the city decided the bridge needed a six-month inspection in March, 2018, possibly because it already knew what it would find.
Part of the original, cross-frame bracing under the west end of the bridge was “severed,” and another part was nearly separated.
“These members should be re-attached, reinforced or removed as the bracing continues to deteriorate and could fail,” the inspectors wrote.
Repairing the cross-bracing was listed as a Priority Code 1 repair — meaning it must be done “immediately.” Only Priority Code 0, for critical or emergency repairs, is more serious under the state’s bridge inspection system.
On March 19, 2018, five days after their visit, the inspectors told the city in an email about their concern about the thousands of pounds of steel beams possibly breaking away and falling. Still the city took no action.
When inspectors returned six months later for the regular, annual inspection in September, the cross-frame bracing was even worse. And if the city did not fully take into account the possibility of major accident, this time the inspectors were more explicit, rating it Priority Code 0.
“Both of the lower bracing members are completely severed at the right frame leg,” they wrote to the city in an email on September 12, 2018, the day after their inspection. “This lower cross-bracing is now leaning 5 feet downhill from the bent and resting against the reinforcing cables … We have concern that the lower Bent 1 cross-frame bracing could break away and fall down the slope and onto the walking trail below.”
PennDOT says the state is supposed to get involved in both Priority 1 and Priority 0 findings on any locally-owned bridge inspection like Fern Hollow. But it was not until September, 2018, when it was Priority 0, that the deteriorating bracing truly caught PennDOT’s attention.
It triggered a flurry of emails between inspectors from CDM Smith — which did the annual inspections at the time, emails show — along with city and state officials about what should be done, according to emails obtained by the Post-Gazette through a records request.
Julia Forgas, a spokeswoman for CDM Smith, would not answer any questions and referred a reporter to PennDOT for answers about what the inspectors found and recommended.
But the 2018 emails show that both the city and state were only concerned with addressing the crumbling cross-frame bracing under the west end of the bridge, which was eventually removed in January, 2019. No other maintenance projects are mentioned in the emails.
That struck Mr. Hota, the engineering professor from West Virginia University, who noticed the severe deterioration that year was not just confined to the cross-frame bracing.
“I’m looking at the 2018 pictures [from the inspection reports] and believe it should have provided them with a major alarm,” he said. “It shows extreme corrosion and eventual failure.”
In particular, he was struck by the numerous joints — where steel beams are joined to other beams — and the severe deterioration and holes near them.
“There is high stress concentrated at the joints,” he said, because joints that connect a beam or girder are always under forces trying to pull them apart, making them weaker over time. That’s why, he said, in the reports so many of the photos show severe decay and eroding steel near the joints where inspectors also noticed they were often moist.
“This is a perfect recipe for extreme corrosion,” he said.
New inspectors, same warnings
When CDM Smith, which performed the inspections of the bridge between 2016 and 2019, was replaced by a new inspection team of two firms — Gannett Fleming and Larson Design Group — the dire warnings about the bridge continued.
“The frame legs and cross bracing are in poor to critical condition, and exhibit uneven weathering, laminar rust, severe corrosion and holes in webs at bracing connections,” said the Gannett Fleming inspectors in the September 2020 report. “Overall, the frame legs and cross-bracing are deteriorating at an accelerated rate, due to malfunctioning drainage systems and deterioration, contamination and seepage through the deck concrete (previously noted).”
The photos that year are striking. One in particular shows a massive, one-foot-wide rusted out hole in the bottom steel web of the southwestern leg, showing deterioration all over the leg. Multiple experts believe the bridge collapse likely began with the southwestern leg, and the NTSB has said the collapse began on the west end of the bridge.
“The photographs I think speak for themselves; this bridge was undergoing very accelerated deterioration,” Mr. Leon said. “If I was an inspector and I saw that, I would have said: ‘Take it out of service. There shouldn’t be any traffic on it until this is all fixed.’”
The next year, 2021, inspectors from Gannett Fleming – which did the onsite inspections while Larson acted as liaison with the city — found the same problems that had plagued the bridge for more than two decades.
Again, all their maintenance recommendations had the same status: “Work not planned.”
Nine photos from inspections from 2007 to 2020 of the same section of the bridge’s southwest leg show how fast deterioration progressed
So why did the city not follow through on those recommendations over the years? Some of them date back to 1995, the reports said.
Was it budgetary problems? The city was under state financial oversight from 2003 to 2019 because of budget shortfalls that had reduced its bond rating to junk status.
Was it because the inspectors, PennDOT and city officials all believed that as bad as it looked that Fern Hollow Bridge really was generally okay?
The answer to those basic questions is not known.
Gannett Fleming declined to comment, citing the ongoing NTSB investigation. Larson and NTSB also refused to comment.
Jennifer Righman McConnell, a bridge engineer and professor in the University of Delaware’s civil engineering department who studies aging infrastructure, said the photos she saw of Fern Hollow before it fell showed “an abnormal amount of corrosion.”
“Based on the deterioration you’re talking about going back to 2005, that unfortunately looks like a lot of warning signs here, that they ignored them or didn’t have the resources to address them,” she said.
Mr. Beck said when you see all those warning signs, and then all the maintenance recommendations, “It becomes a question of who would have, or should have, reacted to this?”
Though PennDOT would not answer questions specific about Fern Hollow, it did say in an emailed answer to questions: “If maintenance needs become urgent according to the priority scale, which would be priorities 0 or 1, PennDOT notifies the bridge owner and tracks completion. Anything non-urgent is the responsibility of the owner to schedule and complete without PennDOT tracking.”
None of the 20 recommendations made by Gannett Fleming inspectors in 2021 and very few of the recommendations dating back to 2005 were considered Priority 0 or 1.
For Mr. Hota, the inspectors over the years made the right recommendations from what was unfolding.
“Do a very quick fix of the deck so it doesn’t leak. Take care of the scuppers so water is away from the girders and legs. Protect the joints. It is expensive all together,” he said. “But now you can see how expensive not doing it is.” ■
Design and development: Tyler Pecyna/Post-Gazette