Local expert: Failure of joint on overpass could have caused collapse

Deadly overpass collapse closes SB I-75 in Cincinnati indefinitely
Published: Jan. 20, 2015 at 4:11 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 21, 2015 at 2:44 PM EST
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The now-collapsed overpass can be seen in the distance of this October 2014 photo. (FOX19/J.Barr)
The now-collapsed overpass can be seen in the distance of this October 2014 photo. (FOX19/J.Barr)
Aerial photo of overpass collapse shot on Tuesday morning. (FOX19)
Aerial photo of overpass collapse shot on Tuesday morning. (FOX19)
Brandon Carl, 35, of Augusta, Kentucky, was pronounced dead at the scene. (Source: WLEX)
Brandon Carl, 35, of Augusta, Kentucky, was pronounced dead at the scene. (Source: WLEX)

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Now that southbound I-75 has reopened and traffic is flowing smoothly again after a 'major pancake collapse' of the old Hopple Street overpass closed it for about 24 hours, attention turns to the cause of the accident that killed a construction worker.

Local bridge and construction expert James Swanson, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Cincinnati, said during an appearance Wednesday on FOX19 NOW Morning News he thinks the collapse is a construction accident that may be due to human error.

"The bridge in question looked to be in a pretty good shape and likely was fine until they tried to tear it down," he said. "One of the least stable times for a bridge is during construction or during deconstruction. When the bridge is in service and all the pieces are working together as a system, they are very safe. But when you start taking pieces away, if you don't do it in the right sequence, if you don't do it properly, then individual parts become unstable and can lead to a collapse like we saw."

Specifically, he said, a failure of an expansion joint on the bridge could have caused the bridge to give out.

"The bridge was a three-span bridge and it was adjoined in the middle span and that particular joint might have led to extra movement in the bridge as they removed part of the slab on a different span," Swanson said. "With a bridge like that, the exterior spans help to support the middle span and if part of the bridge is removed in an improper way or if something unexpected happens, it could lead to collapse or a failure of some sort."

The 51-year-old Hopple Street overpass collapse was reported about 10:15 p.m. Tuesday as state work crews were preparing to demolish it as part of a highway widening project.

The rubble collapsed onto construction worker Brandon Carl, 35, of Augusta, Kentucky, as he operated a backhoe, city and state officials announced in a press conference Tuesday. 

Carl was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the Hamilton County Coroner's Office. His cause of death was not released.

He was engaged to be married and leaves behind four children.

A semi tractor-trailer traveling on the highway struck the fallen section of the bridge. Eric J. Meyers, of Howell, Michigan, suffered non-life threatening injuries and was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center, according to Cincinnati police.

"I can tell you that big rig driver - the semi driver - is very lucky," said Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell. "In a matter of seconds his fate would have probably been different."

A new Hopple Street overpass already has been built to replace the old one and was not impacted. It remained open.

Traffic was halted for about 24 hours on the southbound side of the highway that carries nearly 200,000 vehicles a day. I-75 is the main north-south artery in this part of the country and runs from Michigan to Florida.

Contractor Kokosing Construction Company of Columbus, the Ohio Department of Transportation and federal authorities with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration all have launched separate investigations.

ODOT's acting deputy director, Gary Middleton, declined to discuss what may have caused the collapse.

Meanwhile, work on both sides of the highway to remove the bridge and complete the widening project is on hold until the investigation into the accident is complete.

Click here to hear 911 call after the collapse

The overpass is being replaced as part of the highway widening project, was in "decent shape" and rated an 84 out of 100 in its last inspection in 2013, federal records show.

It is considered "functionally obsolete," which means it's not big enough to do the job anymore and was being replaced as the state widens the highway to five lanes in that stretch.

"It was not one that was necessarily in a bad situation," said Brian Cunningham, an ODOT spokesman. "Obviously it's a tragic situation that occurred and there's an investigation going on as we speak. It probably will be a couple days before anything specific comes out."

Kokosing referred all questions Tuesday to ODOT, who said Kokosing as an excellent safety record.

"My experience is they are a very safe, safety conscious contractor and have some of the highest ratings you can get as a contractor," Middleton said.

Residents who live less than 100 yards away from the highway said they could feel the massive bridge smash down.

"The whole house went va va va voom," said resident Amy Spangler. "I was in the kitchen cleaning up and we heard a big loud noise and the building shook, so I thought someone had driven into my house with a car."

Not knowing at first what happened, Tunicia Kinzer feared the worst. 

"I ran  outside and saw that the bridge had collapsed on top of the semi-truck and by the time all the ambulances were out there," she said. "It was very unbelievable and it was very scary at the time because I didn't know what was going on at the time  and had woke my children up out of bed."

Cincinnati police's homicide unit is investigating the worker's death since it was an industrial accident.

Ohio State Rep. Alicia Reece, who is a member of the transportation finance committee, demanded accountability in the investigation. 

"We now need answers as to how this happened and what the state can do to prevent something so tragic from happening again," said Reece. "I am committed to ensuring a full investigation takes place to detail the cause of the collapse and to ensure we have every possible protocol in place to protect workers and the public."

STORIFY: See how the story unfolded on social media.

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