NTSB issues national bridge recommendations following Fern Hollow collapse

The National Transportation Safety Board made recommendations that federal and state authorities identify actions that need to be taken for certain bridges, specifically citing the 2022 Fern Hollow Bridge collapse.

On Jan. 28, 2022, the bridge experienced a structural failure and fell about 100 feet into Frick Park below. Four people were hurt.

The preliminary NTSB investigation found that corrosion and deterioration on the bridge’s legs due to the accumulation of water and debris caused it to fail.

NTSB investigators found that prior inspections of the bridge performed on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation identified problems with drainage, but maintenance was not regularly performed to resolve the issue. NTSB investigators found other Pennsylvania bridges with similar issues.

The NTSB is now asking the Federal Highway Administration to develop a system for bridge owners across the U.S. to perform necessary follow-up actions on bridges with uncoated weathering steel components.

NTSB officials were so concerned about their findings that they released nearly 150 pages of their report early in hopes of preventing another bridge collapse.

Pitt Engineering Professor Kent Harries went over the findings with us, and said, unfortunately, maintenance is often overlooked.

“It’s highlighting a systemic issue that we maybe don’t pay attention to maintenance as we should. And, when we are dealing with things that could be considered critical to our society, maybe we should be putting more emphasis on it,” Professor Harries said.

The bridge’s beams were made of weathered uncoated steel and were corroded and deteriorated.

Because the bridge’s drains were so blocked, weather and de-icing brine found other ways off the bridge and severely damaged the beams.

“Today, I’m not sure that weathering steel would be used in anything other than fairly traditional straight beam bridges,” Professor Harries added.

When we asked city officials why the drains weren’t cleared, they told us they don’t have a comment because the NTSB investigation wasn’t done.

A spokesperson said they’ve since created a bridge maintenance division. However, that new division comes after a decade of inspector recommendations to clear the drains, that according to the NTSB, were ignored.

“We don’t tend to pay that much attention to it. When you know your gutters need to be cleaned out at home, is when they start overflowing and causing other damage,” he said.

The NTSB report stated other bridges in Pennsylvania had debris build up in their drains, but none as severe as the Fern Hollow Bridge.

Their investigation into why those drains weren’t cleared is still ongoing.

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