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Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge collapse the result of oversight and maintenance failures, NTSB finds

The Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed on the morning of Jan. 28, 2022. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation found the city of Pittsburgh failed to heed inspection reports indicating the bridge needed maintenance. (Credit: NTSB)

Kim Lyons, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 21, 2024

The Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh was badly corroded and should have been closed long before it collapsed in 2022, federal officials said Wednesday.

But the city of Pittsburgh failed to act on several years’ worth of state inspectors’ recommendations for repairs and maintenance, leading to progressive deterioration and ultimately, the structural failure of the 447-foot-long bridge, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

“The Fern Hollow bridge catastrophe must serve as a wake-up call that we cannot take our infrastructure for granted,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said Wednesday during a hearing by the NTSB board to discuss the cause of the collapse. “Only through diligent attention to inspection, maintenance, and repair can we ensure the roads, bridges, and tunnels we all traverse every day are safe for the traveling public. Lives depend on it.”

In addition, the bridge’s load rating was too high, and should have been reduced, the NTSB found.

The 50-plus-year-old bridge in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood collapsed shortly before 7 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2022, while five vehicles, including a Pittsburgh Regional Transit bus, were traveling on it. Nine people were in the vehicles, and several were seriously injured. The morning of the collapse it was snowing and schools were on a two-hour delay, factors that Homendy said Wednesday likely prevented further casualties from the incident. The bridge reopened in December, 2022.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Homendy apologized to the people who were on the bridge when it fell.

“On behalf of the NTSB, we are so sorry you experienced such a terrifying event,” she said. “The Fern Hollow Bridge collapse should never have happened.”

The NTSB board unanimously approved a report on the collapse Wednesday, following a two-year investigation into the cause.

Steve Prouty, a structural engineer and investigator-in-charge with the NTSB, said that during its review, the NTSB found numerous, documented inspection findings year after year that were not acted upon by city of Pittsburgh officials.

Clogged storm drains that were not routinely cleaned created the conditions that led to the corrosion of the bridge’s legs, and eventually one of the legs failed, which caused the collapse, according to the report.

“Responsibility for safety of this bridge is on the city of Pittsburgh, solely on the city of Pittsburgh,” Homendy said on a call with reporters after the hearing. PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration had a responsibility for oversight, she added, but the city owns the bridge.

Asked why the city failed to act on the inspection reports, NTSB senior accident investigator Dennis Collins said during the call with reporters that the quality of record-keeping was “low,” and high staff turnover “really prevented us from getting an answer to that question.”

The NTSB also said its investigators determined PennDOT contractors, working on behalf of the city, made errors in their inspections, including failing to calculate the load rating accurately, and failing to identify what it called “fracture-critical areas” on the bridge’s legs.

The NTSB board voted to approve several recommendations to the FHWA, PennDOT, the City of Pittsburgh, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to prevent future collapses, and address the safety issues identified in the investigation.

The NTSB does not have enforcement authority, but Homendy said FHWA and PennDOT can mandate certain actions be taken. “We have a very high success rate of implementation of our safety recommendations,” Homendy said, adding the NTSB has a team that follows up on recommendations to ensure action is being taken.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey had taken office just a few weeks before the bridge collapse. His office did not immediately comment on the report on Wednesday.

“We used up all of our luck when no lives were lost in that catastrophic collapse,” state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), whose district includes the Fern Hollow Bridge, said in a statement Wednesday. “We have to learn every single thing we can from it, and use government cooperation, regulation and funding to make sure that we never again need luck to keep our residents safe as they travel our roads and bridges.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.