Responders search for victims among the rubble following a bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy, in August (Getty Images)
This article was first published in NFPA Journal on September 4. Read more articles from the "Dispatches" section of the September/October 2018 issue of NFPA Journal here.
In August, a bridge built in the 1960s collapsed in Genoa, Italy, killing 43 people. Photos from the incident show firefighters and other responders searching for survivors and victims among giant slabs of concrete and twisted metal.
As Miami-Dade (Florida) Fire Chief and NFPA member Dave Downey watched the news unfold, he identified parallels between it and what his department experienced in March, when a bridge collapsed and killed six people on the campus of Florida International University. A few days after the bridge collapse in Italy, Downey shared his thoughts about the Italy incident and the one he experienced in Florida months earlier via email with NFPA Journal.
Do you think Italian officials are experiencing similar challenges to the ones your department faced?
While the Italian bridge collapse and the details surrounding the search and rescue efforts are still unfolding, I am sure that some of the challenges we faced during our event in March will be present here as well. While the magnitude of the Italian incident exceeds ours incident exponentially, I am sure there are similar challenges.
What’s the biggest challenge?
First and foremost for us was accountability. We had to ask ourselves, how many people were on, under, and around the bridge when it collapsed? This is not like a typical building collapse where you might be able to more quickly determine who was in the building and who is missing. Like I am sure is happening in Italy, we had to rely on witness statements, direct observation, and gaining access to as much security video footage as possible. That process is very time-consuming.
What are some of the other challenges?
The second major concern, but the primary with respect to rescue operations, is the stability of the already collapsed sections of the bridge, as well as the still-standing portions that have the potential to collapse. In our case, we were dealing with a 174-foot continuous span of concrete that was intended to be stabilized through post-tensioning, which failed during the collapse, resulting in large, unsupported sections of concrete that could not be easily lifted or removed.
After my 30-plus years in the fire service and working in the urban search and rescue environment, I have come to the conclusion that regardless of what engineers and construction experts say, the only way to move large sections of concrete is to make them smaller sections of concrete. This takes an incredible amount of time, but fortunately in our case, it strictly affected recovery and we did not have to break up large sections of concrete to rescue survivors.
The final challenge in these types of events is when to make the decision to transition from rescue to recovery when you are still perhaps uncertain as to the total number missing people. It can be a really hard decision to make, but it’s essential.
What are your thoughts on the efforts of Italian responders?
From the footage I have seen, it appears the Italian rescuers have a good strategy for the rescue operation, utilizing all search techniques available including canines. Access to parts of the collapse appeared to be a challenge but the utilization of cranes and other vertical options appeared effective. It’s a tough way to work hanging from a rope, cable, or even in a basket, and I applaud their hard work.