Pittsburgh bridge collapses ahead of Biden’s infrastructure visit

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Pittsburgh bridge collapses ahead of Biden’s infrastructure visit

The collapsed bridge carrying Forbes Avenue over the Fern Hollow Creek ravine at Frick Park. (Pittsburgh Public Safety)

Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge, a roughly 50-year-old bridge that carries a busy stretch of Forbes Avenue across a steep ravine in the Point Breeze neighborhood, collapsed early this morning. Per initial reporting by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 10 people suffered minor injuries when the 447-foot-long bridge buckled and folded into the ravine below, taking a small handful of vehicles and a Port Authority bus carrying two passengers and its operator with it. Among those injured were some first responders.

Although there were fortunately no fatalities, the rescue effort was described as a harrowing one with crews rappelling over 100 feet into the ravine and forming a “human chain” to rescue those trapped in the dangling bus, lifting them to safety. In addition to those treated on the scene, three people were transported to local hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries according to an update by Pittsburgh Public Safety. Meanwhile, motorists and pedestrians have been advised to avoid the area. Rescue operations concluded just after 8:30 a.m. according to a press release from the Mayor’s Office.

“I am thankful for the quick response and dedication of the Pittsburgh Public Safety Department, and for the cooperation and assistance of the county, state, and federal governments,” said Mayor Ed Gainey in a statement.

The cause of the collapse, which occurred shortly before 7:00 a.m., has yet to be determined and is now under investigation.

The timing of the Pittsburgh bridge collapse is ironic. President Joe Biden is due in the city later today to discuss a variety of topics with a focus on how his administration’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan will help to fix the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. Speaking to the Tribune-Review, City Controller Michael Lamb called the bridge collapse “a reminder that investments in infrastructure are investments in public safety,” and noted that Allegheny County is home to more structurally deficient bridges than any other county in the entire United States. (Structural deficiencies aside, Pittsburgh, which sits at the confluence of three rivers and is noted for its hilly terrain, is the “City of Bridges” and boasts a purported world record-setting 446 spans within city limits.)

In a tweet, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki relayed that the President was made aware of the situation in Pittsburgh and is “grateful to the first responders who rushed to assist the drivers who were on the bridge at the time.” She noted that he will “proceed with [the] trip planned for today and will stay in touch with officials on the ground about additional assistance we can provide.” Biden’s visit will be to Mill 19, a robotics- and AI-focused research and development hub housed within a former steel mill at the Hazelwood Green development. Public safety-related preparations were underway in advance of his visit.

Update: Upon arriving in Pittsburgh for the planned event at Mill 19, Biden first visited the site of the collapsed bridge where he met with local officials and politicians. Pledging to fix all of Pittsburgh’s bridges in need of repair, he noted that “the idea that we’ve been so far behind on infrastructure for so many years, it’s mindboggling.”

Completed in 1973 (1970, according to some sources), the two-lane Fern Hollow Bridge, also known as the Forbes Avenue Bridge, crosses through the outskirts of Frick Park, a woodland tract known for its dramatic topography that ranks as Pittsburgh’s largest municipal park. (The park has been closed for safety reasons following the collapse.) Recently covered in heavy snow, the aging bridge serves as a major artery into the Squirrel Hill neighborhood from the neighboring East End community of Regent Square and the borough of Wilkinsburg, according to the Tribune-Review. As noted by The Independent, the bridge won a 1973 design award from the American Institute of Steel Construction. Jurors noted that the bridge’s “sloping piers and their relationship to the hillsides give the entire structure a sense of logic and beauty.”

In conversation with CNN’s New Day, Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman emphasized the crucial role of the bridge, describing it as a “vital artery here in the city of Pittsburgh.”

“This is a horrible way to underscore just how critical our infrastructure needs are in this country because this is a vital artery in the Pittsburgh area,” Fetterman added. “It literally just collapsed and now we have a situation here … from a transportation standpoint, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to imagine getting around the way this was given the bridge that is collapsed.”

Last year, Fetterman announced a 2022 run for the United States Senate seat being vacated by retiring Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who voted against the Biden infrastructure plan (a fact that many online commenters were quick to point out following the bridge collapse).

bus dangling from a collapsed bridge
(Courtesy Office of Mayor Ed Gainey)

A gas line running along the bridge was also severed during the collapse, resulting in what Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones referred to as a “massive gas leak.” The line has since been closed off and that situation, which prompted the evacuation of local residents, is under control and residents have since been allowed to return to their home according to the Mayor’s Office.

During an early morning news conference addressing the unfolding situation, Mayor Gainey relayed that the bridge, which carries approximately 14,000 cars per day, was last inspected this past September. Per the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation website, it had an overall rating condition of “poor” along with 174 other bridges in Allegheny County, a number that represents roughly 11 percent of total bridges in the county.

In December 2018, a Twitter user documented severe rusting on the underside of the bridge, and it is unclear if it was addressed.

We will adjust this developing story as city and state officials continue to provide new updates.