A bridge falls. Pittsburgh makes national headlines. Then, a swarm of government responses, lawsuits and impacts that reverberated through the community. Four months later, where are we?
Bridge maintenance rocketed to the top of Mayor Ed Gainey’s priorities following the collapse in January. The city plans to solicit bids and pick a vendor to craft a comprehensive bridge maintenance plan by June 17.
PublicSource compiled a timeline of the day the Fern Hollow bridge collapsed and all that has followed, plus, what’s next.
All falls down — Jan. 28, 2022
A loud noise. Sounds of hissing. Smells of natural gas.
When it was still pitch black outside on a brisk January morning, the 447-foot Fern Hollow Bridge fell. In an instant, the long-standing centerpiece was no more.
At the time, a Port Authority 61B bus was headed to Braddock from downtown Pittsburgh. In total, nine people in six vehicles collapsed with the bridge.
First responders arrived, gained control of a gas leak and rappelled nearly 150 feet, forming a human chain to pull people to safety. Canines were brought to assist. The state’s Urban Search and Rescue team was called. Some homes were evacuated.
The stunning news made the rounds. Local residents descended on the scene to peer at the wreckage and make sense of what happened. Politicians arrived to assess the damage. President Joe Biden visited the site shortly after he arrived in the city to give a previously scheduled speech about infrastructure and doubled down on the country’s need to invest in its bridges and roads.
Within hours of the collapse, Mayor Ed Gainey was speaking just steps in front of the cavernous space where the bridge once stood as cameras shuttered and nearby residents and onlookers watched in amazement.
Later that evening, officials from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived to investigate. It could take 12 to 18 months for a final report to be released. (Why did the bridge collapse? What kind of care was Fern Hollow getting?)
(Rewatch this minute-by-minute timeline that reconstructs the events of Jan. 28 through multiple eyewitness accounts.)
Pittsburgh feels the weight of the collapse
A week after the collapse, and with plenty of questions still unanswered, cleanup and plans to rebuild were underway.
The collapse spurred discussions about safety concerns traveling across numerous bridges throughout the county and state. Five other bridges in Pennsylvania with the same design as the Fern Hollow Bridge were inspected following the collapse. Experts assured residents that despite the collapse, they shouldn’t panic about other bridges.
In the following weeks, reports emerged about residents’ concerns about more local bridges in a questionable or corroding state, such as the South Negley Avenue Bridge in Shadyside, which also had a ‘poor’ bridge rating.
The Versailles Avenue Bridge in McKeesport was closed to traffic following an inspection that was pushed up in the wake of the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse. The Port Authority shut down its South Busway bridge for months, rerouting transit in the South Hills.
Local drivers at the time said they were concerned about the safety of the bridges used in their commutes.
Businesses near the Fern Hollow Bridge were impacted, including, at the time, the impending closure of one waffle restaurant.
It also raised interest in infrastructure, with Pittsburgh City Council considering and later creating an infrastructure commission.
Over time, details about the collapse continued to emerge.
Years before the bridge collapsed, since at least 2014, the state’s concern apparently grew with the Fern Hollow Bridge and it decided to increase bridge inspections to occur annually. Local residents made multiple calls to 311 about the bridge’s condition from 2016 to 2019. A lack of maintenance on the city-owned and city-maintained bridge may have played a role in its collapse, reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggests. Fern Hollow Bridge was severely decaying before its collapse, a 2021 report indicates.
Rust corroded the bridge to the point there were holes in the steel support legs. Steel cross-beams were “severed” from their connection to support legs that hold up the bridge.
On Feb 11, the public learned that the Penn Hills couple hurt in the collapse planned to sue the city, Port Authority and PennDOT, citing injuries including fractured vertebrae and “psychological damage.”
Politicians spring to action — February/March
The bridge collapse — deemed by some a “call to action” — almost immediately became a symbol of the need to fully inspect, repair and invest in the country’s aging transportation infrastructure.
One week after the collapse, city and state officials said work would immediately begin to replace the fallen bridge through an emergency agreement.
Gainey and Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O’Connor introduced The Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment, a 15-member panel including city officials, city residents and organized labor representatives. The commission was described in a press release as laying out “best practices for both short- and long-term investment in the upkeep and improvement of major City-maintained infrastructure assets.”
Pennsylvania will spend about $25 million to design and replace the collapsed bridge, funded in part by the federal infrastructure plan.
Public input on the rebuilding of Fern Hollow Bridge will be limited to expedite the process, which has been criticized by some who wanted a say in its design.
Fern Hollow construction begins as new details emerge — April/May
On May 5, photos from video footage on the Port Authority bus traveling across the bridge at the time of collapse were released in an investigative update from the National Transportation Safety Board. The update also noted that the injury status of one vehicle occupant was still unknown.
Construction was set to begin the week of May 9 with the “pouring of concrete for the underground support for the first bridge pier,” according to the Post-Gazette. The bridge is being built under an emergency declaration.
The Port Authority bus driver who was on the Fern Hollow Bridge when it collapsed said he was injured and filed a May 16 court motion asking the city to turn over bridge records in anticipation of a lawsuit.
On May 20, PennDOT released an inspection report on the Fern Hollow Bridge completed in late September, four months before its collapse. The report, released in response to a Post-Gazette Right-to-Know request, showed major decay of the structure but did not prompt immediate repairs.
What now, what next?
Here are a few things to look out for in the coming months:
- The NTSB report – The NTSB review and final declaration on why the bridge collapsed could take as long as 18 months, well into 2023. It’s expected that decisions in recent years to forego bridge repairs may be critical in the investigation.
- An independent private investigator is also conducting a separate probe, at the request of the city, following approval by city council to spend up to $17,500 on an investigation into the collapse.
- Pittsburgh’s mayor plans to overhaul how the city manages its bridges and hire a consultant to create a comprehensive bridge management plan, but thinning staff at the city’s infrastructure and mobility office could make it hard to implement.
- The city is rebuilding from the ground up: Contractors are building the substructure of the new bridge under an emergency declaration, while the top of the bridge is still being designed. The completion timeline is dictated by factors from what materials to use and where to get them to what look the new bridge will take. In the meantime, there are no plans for a temporary throughway.
Read more about the Fern Hollow Bridge and Pittsburgh’s infrastructure:
- Allegheny County bridges: List of latest inspections, maintenance work
- With all eyes on Biden in Pittsburgh, 13 local experts diagnose the region’s biggest infrastructure needs
This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.
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