Wando River Bridge (copy) (copy)

A crane lifts a section of the James B. Edwards bridge over the Wando River in to place during construction September 16, 1987. File/Staff/Brad Nettles

Brad Nettles bnettles@postandcourier.com

The firm that designed the problem-plagued Wando River bridge is known for its work on some of the nation’s most breathtaking spans and for two destructive collapses that drew scorn and threatened lives. 

Tallahassee, Fla.-based FIGG Bridge Engineers was founded by Eugene Figg Jr., a 1958 Citadel graduate whose innovative and stylish work earned him an international reputation for creating "bridges as art." Figg, who died in 2002, was known in professional circles as the "father of concrete segmental bridges in America," a style embodied by the 7,900-foot-long James B. Edwards Bridge over the Wando.

Other spans in FIGG's portfolio include the Sunshine Skyway in Tampa, Fla.; the Seven Mile Bridge leading to the Florida Keys; and the Linn Cove Viaduct along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. FIGG also designed a mammoth 10-lane span over the Mississippi River into Minneapolis after its predecessor came crashing down in a deadly 2007 collapse. The firm also was in the running at one point to design Charleston's now-iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River. 

More recently, however, FIGG's name has been tied to the failure of a pedestrian bridge that collapsed in March near Florida International University in Miami, killing six people. The 950-ton, 174-foot span fell onto the eight-lane highway below it, crushing several vehicles.

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University Bridge Collapse

Workers stand next to a section of a collapsed pedestrian bridge, Friday, March 16, 2018 near Florida International University in the Miami area. The new pedestrian bridge that was under construction collapsed onto a busy Miami highway Thursday afternoon, crushing vehicles beneath massive slabs of concrete and steel, killing and injuring several people, authorities said. File/Wilfredo Lee/AP

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are still trying to pinpoint the cause of that collapse, but they have confirmed that workers were adjusting steel tension rods on the bridge when it went down. The Miami Herald also has reported that two days before the collapse, FIGG’s lead engineer called Florida transportation officials to report that cracking had been spotted on the bridge's north end.

After the collapse, FIGG issued a statement saying the company was stunned by the "devastating tragedy. In our 40-year history, nothing like this has ever happened before."

The company, however, had experienced a close call in 2012.

In June of that year, a 52-foot-long section of the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge that FIGG was building in Virginia collapsed, sending a 90-ton load onto the railroad tracks beneath it. Four workers suffered minor injuries in the mishap.

The state of Virginia fined FIGG $28,000, with labor officials citing the company for four main violations. They included allegations that FIGG failed to get a manufacturer’s written consent before it modified a girder that ultimately failed, according to a report in The Virginian Pilot. The bridge spans the Elizabeth River between Chesapeake and Portsmouth.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also fined FIGG $9,800 after issuing eight citations, three of them “serious,” its records show. OSHA later deleted two of the serious violations.

Cheryl Stopnick, a spokeswoman for FIGG Bridge Engineers, said the incident "was a construction equipment property damage issue that had nothing to do with the final bridge." She said the bridge restored a vital connection in the area when it opened in October 2012. 

As for the Edwards Bridge over the Wando, Stopnick said, FIGG has heard nothing from South Carolina transportation officials regarding the closure. She said the bridge was designed in a manner that has produced some of the most common and durable spans in the nation. 

FIGG is known for coming up with innovative bridge designs that also come in as the lowest bid, said Martin Gordon, an engineering technology professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and president of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers.

“They’re very focused on saving money, saving time, saving something else," Gordon said. "It all comes, perhaps, at the expense of the fidelity of the structure.”

History of problems

The Edwards Bridge over the Wando has never experienced a problem of that magnitude, but it has had its share of issues, even before it opened to traffic in late-1989.

As the $275 million job to complete this leg of Interstate 526 was still under construction, allegations bubbled up about the quality of workmanship, including allegations of drug use among some workers on the job.

A state investigation spent almost a year digging into those claims but eventually found no safety issue. Still, the bridge opened almost two years behind schedule. The contractor, T.L. James Associates of Louisiana, eventually sued the state and the bridge's designers, alleging the design for the $32.1 million bridge was incomplete and defective. Meanwhile, the highway department sought more than $1.3 million from the contractor due to delays.

Only four years after it opened, its innovative aluminum expansion joints began failing, damaging cars passing over the bridge. The joints were replaced.

H.B. "Buck" Limehouse, a Charleston businessman who at the time led the S.C. Department of Transportation, said those joints were replaced under warranty, but truckers also began complaining about how the new interstate would pitch up and down.

"If you go fast, it starts pitching you up and down. I asked my engineers and they said it was not a good job, but it meets specs," Limehouse said, adding he offered to lower the speed limit to make for a smoother ride but truckers didn't want that.

In a bizarre episode, the bridge closed briefly in 2002 when an open-bed truck carrying cylinders of highly flammable gas slammed into a Charleston police car, creating a fiery spectacle that halted play at the Family Circle Cup tennis tournament. No one suffered a serious injury and the bridge was relatively unscathed.

The cable issue

Until this week, one of the largest maintenance issues revolved around “scour” affecting the foundation of its three main supports. In 2012, the state Department of Transportation performed $1.5 million in repairs to protect those foundations. Scour happens when water currents remove material around the base of a bridge support.

But the snapped cable represents a whole new ball game — one that could keep the bridge shut for several weeks.

"They need to look at everything on that bridge now, not just that one cable," Limehouse said.

The cable that snapped was one of eight main cables across the span of the bridge. A repair job on a similar cable that had corroded in the same location was completed in October 2016, resulting in limited closures. Since then, the state has conducted weekly reviews of the bridge. Monday's issue was discovered during one of those reviews.

State officials have not released detailed inspection reports on the bridge. Federal Highway Administration inspection data on the Edwards Bridge paints a picture of an aging span with minor deterioration yet still functional in every respect. The bridge saw its ratings dip over time, but both sides were considered to be in fair-to-good condition as of last year, from its deck to its superstructure.

Inspectors gave both sides of the bridge a 77.3 rating out of 100 points, making it typical among spans in Charleston County, the data shows. Of the county’s 282 bridges, 259 were rated in good or fair condition, while 46 were found to be in poor shape or structurally obsolete.

Still, Limehouse noted that state officials are mindful of the 2007 tragedy in Minneapolis, when the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed, sending cars, trucks and a school bus into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and injuring more than 100 others.

"The last thing DOT wants is something like that," he said. "I think they’re being overly cautious, and you can’t blame them. They would rather have people mad because of traffic delays than have the bridge fall into the river.”

Brenda Rindge contributed to this report. 

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."