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I-Team: Insider Insight Into I-395 Bridge Problem

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The CBS4 I-Team has learned that the wrong parts were initially installed on a major South Florida bridge. It’s a bridge that has been the focus of a two-year I-Team investigation into structurally deficient bridges in South Florida. I-Team Investigator Stephen Stock talked to the whistleblower who said that mistake caused a serious accident on that bridge on June 24, 2009.

That was the day when a ton of metal popped out of the middle of I-395’s pavement and smashed into one car, barely missing its driver.

“Fortunately, (there were) no serious injuries,” said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Pat Santangelo on the day of the accident. “Although one lady had her car demolished.”

It was a freak accident that brought traffic to a halt and sent officials scrambling to figure out why to make sure it didn’t happen again.

“I’ve told them for three weeks, before we finished these columns (supporting the bridge),” said former construction worker Bernd Ratfisch.

Ratfisch said the accident didn’t have to happen in the first place. He said the accident was caused by human error.

“The pads that they had were an inch to an inch and a quarter too small,” Ratfisch said.

Ratfisch should know.

“I was the lead man (on the job),” Ratfisch said.

Ratfisch said he was the lead foreman carpenter on the eastbound I-395 bridge job who says he warned his superiors, coworkers, inspectors, anyone who would listen.

“I warned them,” Ratfisch told the I-Team.

I-Team Investigator Stephen Stock asked “What did they do?”

“(They) kept telling me ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ‘It’s not your problem.’ ‘My hands are tied.'” Ratfisch said.

He warned them that an accident just like this would happen…

“You said something is going to happen to this bridge?” Stock asked.

“I told them for three weeks,” Ratfisch said. “I told them for three weeks.”

Ratfisch said he kept warning his superiors about the problem for up to three days before the accident actually happened on June 24, 2009.

“What did you get for that effort to warn them?” Stock asked.

“I got fired,” Ratfisch replied. “I got shipped out and got fired.”

In an e-mail to the CBS4 I-Team, the owner of Slagter Construction, Brian Slagter, which is the contractor hired to actually do the bridge repairs on I-395 said that Ratfisch was let go for economic reasons, not because Ratfisch raised questions about the safety of the bridge repairs.

For the entire statement from Brian Slagter click here.

Within a week of being fired, Bernd Ratfisch saw his prediction of an accident come true while reading CBS4.com while sitting at home in Jacksonville.

Ratfisch said it’s all because those who ordered parts did not read the entire blueprint for the bridge.

Parts called pads which hold up the steel girders as part of the steel supporting structure that carries the roadway on the bridge away from the concrete supports.

You can see an exclusive animated demonstration of how the pads work by clicking here.

“It says to field measure for the correct size for the bearing pads,” Ratfisch said “It (the blueprint) says to field measure them.”

I-Team investigator Stock asked, “And did they field measure them?”

Ratfisch replied “They did not.”

According to Ratfisch and two other current bridge workers who asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs here’s what happened:

When the pads under the steel girders were too small, too short, they lowered the level of the roadway, making the metal expansion joint uneven.
Because of that, that expansion metal joint began to take a pounding from traffic above.

“Obviously we had a problem,” said Senior Project Engineer Enrique Tamayo. “We recognized the problem.”

Tamayo is the Senior Project Engineer working as a consultant for Florida’s Department of Transportation on this I-395 bridge repair project.

After the bridge supports were set back down on the new pads “We noticed that the span was slightly lower than what it was originally,” Enrique Tamayo said.

Florida Department of Transportation records show that an average of 70 thousand cars, vans and trucks cross this eastbound I-395 bridge through downtown Miami every day.

The CBS4 I-Team first reported earlier this year this bridge has been on the list of bridges in critical need of repair for a year now.

In fact, repair work has been under way since last December. Ratfisch said he’s been part of that repair work from the beginning all the way up until the day he was fired in June.

I-Team investigator Stock asked Ratfisch “What’s the danger posed by the short pads?”

“The danger is the metal coming loose and having the same accident as you had before,” Ratfisch said.

“The metal is not welded onto nothing it is buried in the concrete. When you keep slamming it up and down it loosens up the bolts from the concrete.”

And exactly as described, the metal expansion joint popped out of the concrete on June 24, 2009, within a week of Ratfisch’s last warning and his firing.

“When that pulls loose on the back side it will come up in the air,” Ratfisch said.

And that’s exactly what happened on June 24th, hitting one car, nearly destroying the car’s front end.

DOT’s private contracted consultant, Tamayo, said the pads ordered were the ones called for in the blueprints. Although Tamayo did admit that engineers had to add metal shims or spacers in order to raise the steel girders to the proper level where they’d been before this repair work started.

“We’re putting in a shim where there were no shims originally,” Tamayo said of the new repair work. “Now we’re putting in a shim with the pad” in order to get the bridge to the proper level.

And DOT admits that it took more than two weeks, at least 15 days, after the accident to install those metal shims and raise the bridge to its proper level.

Bernd Ratfisch isn’t convinced the bridge still has been repaired properly.

He worries this type of accident could well happen again.

“I’m worried for the safety of the people because you can still hear the noise” indicating the bridge still isn’t at its proper level Ratfisch said.

Brian Slagter, owner of Slagter Construction, the private contractor in charge of this project sent us an e-mail saying that they did not install “the wrong sized pads” but installed pads as called for designated by the plans.

Like consultant Enrique Tamayo, Slagter insists the correct pads from the blueprints were ordered and installed.

Although both men admit that once those pads were installed the bridge was uneven and “did not sit correctly.”

Both men insist that problem has now been resolved and there is no longer a danger to the traveling public. Again, you can read the entire e-mailed statement by clicking here.
(© MMX, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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