NTSB Releases Fern Hollow Investigation Findings
New information has been released from the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse in Pittsburgh, reportedly revealing failures by the city to properly service the structure and other bridges.
According to reports, these new documents show that the consultant who led multiple inspections of Fern Hollow and other bridges told the city several times that it needed to keep drains clear of debris.
The new information comes one year after the NTSB released a report which found that a lack of maintenance had led to clogged drains on the bridge, resulting in the corrosion that played a part in the collapse.
Bridge Collapse Background
On Jan. 28, 2022, the Allegheny County Police Department was notified about a partial bridge collapse over Frick Park. Emergency crews arrived at the Forbes Avenue Bridge, also referred to as the Fern Hollow Bridge, around Forbes and Braddock avenues.
NTSB documents released in bridge collapse investigation show city of Pittsburgh failed to do proper maintenance | Click on the image to read the full story https://t.co/mQhLeHvBgj— WTAE-TV Pittsburgh (@WTAE) January 5, 2024
Initial reports indicated that an articulated Port Authority bus and four passenger vehicles were on the bridge at the time of the collapse, along with a fifth passenger vehicle that drove off the east bridge abutment following the collapse. First responder crews rappelled 100 to 150 feet to reach victims, while others formed a “human chain” to rescue people from the bus.
A preliminary NTSB investigation reported that the bridge was an uncoated, weathering steel, three-span, continuous rigid “K” frame structure with two welded steel girders, welded steel floor beams and rolled steel stringers. The ends of the structure rested on reinforced concrete caps on stone masonry abutments, with each girder additionally supported by two inclined, welded and uncoated weathering steel frame legs on concrete thrust blocks.
According to the release, certain areas of the welded steel girders were identified as being fracture critical, but no primary fractures were found in those areas. Initial assessment indicates the collapse began at the west end of the bridge.
In May of that year, the NTSB provided an update on the recovery of structural components and tests currently being conducted to evaluated materials used when constructing the bridge, as well as a review of new footage recovered from a transit bus camera system.
Investigators reviewed video footage from the time of the collapse from two of the cameras on a Port Authority transit bus. The cameras, one forward-facing and one rear-facing the curbside, were determined to have “investigative value” with frames depicting events of interest.
The first frame, from the forward-facing camera, reportedly showed the bridge deck separating at the east expansion joint. The second frame, from the curbside camera, reportedly showed that, at nearly the same time, the west end of the bridge had already fallen off the west abutment.
Additionally, while the preliminary report listed ten vehicle occupants as being injured during the bridge collapse, further investigation had confirmed a total of nine occupants in six vehicles, including the Port Authority transit bus. Of the injuries, two vehicle occupants sustained serious injuries, two injuries were minor, four were uninjured and the injury status of one is unknown.
That same month, a newly released inspection document revealed that the Fern Hollow Bridge had “major decay” prior to its collapse, including exposed rebar, corrosion, holes in the steel crossbeams and spalling in the bridge deck.
In December 2022, officials opened the new Fern Hollow Bridge, after the construction of the replacement structure was completed less than a year after the original bridge’s collapse in January. The bridge is currently open to a single-lane of bi-direction traffic.
In December 2023, an investigation from Scripps News using newly released federal data reportedly showed the unexpected difficulties in repairing bridges in the nation that are corroded, cracked and at a heightened risk of being shut down.
According to the report, billions of federal tax dollars are going towards fixing worn out bridges coast to coast as over 14,000 in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. have been ranked in poor condition for at least a decade.
Scripps News discovered that warnings about the bridge went back years. Documents in litigation filed by survivors of the collapse reportedly showed many years of neglect. According to the report, a 2001 bridge inspection reported documented corrosion of the bridge’s legs. By 2005, there were signs of “severe corrosion.”
Additionally, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board discovered clogged drains on the bridge that led to some of the deterioration.
After the collapse, the NTSB reportedly broadened its look at bridges across Pennsylvania and found that the state had numerous bridges in similar states of degradation.
According to the report, parts of the bridge date back to 1890, with records detailing deterioration going back 30 years. The Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure stated that the bridge would be scheduled to undergo full rehabilitation, though not until 2026.
"The number one problem was the clogged scuppers and downspouts on almost all their bridges. And I tried to preach that the whole time, and nothing ever got done," Tim Pintar, who oversaw inspections for CDM Smith, told WTAE.
The city stated in response to these claims that it did not ask its maintenance contractor to clean expansion joints or drainage system on the Fern Hollow bridge in the three years before the collapse. Additionally, the city had admitted to not creating a maintenance schedule for expansion joints or stormwater drainage at bridges.
"Just cleaning the scuppers and the expansion dams, simple maintenance would go a long, long way. And they never did. They just started doing it last year," said Tom Joyce, a former operations manager for city public works and DOMI, the agency that oversees bridges.
The NTSB documents reportedly raised concerns over the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's bridge inspection procedures, as the city's bridge inspection consultant said he was allowed only two six-hour periods to inspect the bridge.
According to a report from KDKA, the transcript from the documents said, "Well, we—what we had was two days." It continued to say, "So, you know, it was—we didn't have a lot of time to get through, because we had to go down each side..."
When asked "...the way you just answered that made it seem like the inspection may have been rushed..." the engineer reportedly said that "We looked at the main components. I'm not saying we didn't. I mean, we did. But like I said, we didn't have a whole, you know, time to get a detailed, you know, in-depth inspection. We couldn't do that."
The thousands of pages of newly released documents in the investigation into the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse reportedly reveal two patterns: a lack of action and a lack of allocating necessary resources.
According to another report from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Olga George, a spokeswoman for the city, said she could not address specific questions regarding the documents.
“We can’t speak to the response of the previous administration to concerns regarding bridge maintenance,” she said.
Additionally, the collapse has been the subject of many court briefings and hearings. Attorneys for the city have reportedly tried to block subpoenas on behalf of Gannett Flemming, CDM Smith and Michael Baker Corp.
"I'm just getting through it now," said Peter Giglione, an attorney representing victims of the collapse. "It's thousands of pages of stuff, but what we're learning from those documents is absolutely incredible, and not in a good way, either."
Giglione reportedly represents the victims of the bridge collapse, and previously convinced a judge to order engineering firm CDM Smith Incorporated to provide them with all the documents related to this bridge, though the firm nitially resisted.
Plaintiffs reportedly filed a motion on Dec. 21, 2023, noting that they had received a Right-to-Know response from PennDOT, which contained the same documents the plaintiffs had requested from the city and engineering firms.
The documents reportedly included bridge inspection reports, emails, photos and sketches. Additionally, the reports included spreadsheets listing the last inspection dates and ratings for deck, superstructure and other components of bridges in the city.
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey's administration reportedly told the NTSB that the city has quadrupled spending on bridge inspections and maintenance since the collapse, including cleaning scuppers and joints on 29 bridges and replacing leaky seals on 11 bridges.