Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Public safety

Teen who fell into gap in new John's Pass Bridge is suing

MADEIRA BEACH — Two people falling off the new John's Pass Bridge within a month was enough for the state to block off parts of the span.

Fernanda Alvarez wonders what took so long.

She fell through more than a year ago.

Alvarez, 19, of Miami spent three weeks in Bayfront Medical Center with a shattered pelvis and broken arm. Then a senior at Immaculata-La Salle High School in Coconut Grove, Alvarez was an active member on the student council who loved to play soccer.

She graduated in a wheelchair.

"I figured," she said, "I was going to be in a wheelchair forever."

•••

It was March 5, 2011, just weeks after the two new spans of the bridge were opened, when Alvarez decided to cross.

She wanted to watch a friend on a personal watercraft.

Heading to the top, she jogged along the sidewalk-like median separating the two spans. Her friends stayed behind.

Suddenly, she disappeared from sight.

"From where we were standing, you couldn't see the gap," said a friend Joseph Raia, 19, who found Alvarez lying on concrete below.

The area in question is a median between the northbound and southbound lanes. It runs partly up the bridge on both sides, then ends abruptly, revealing a 100-foot-long, 3-foot-wide opening designed to provide structural flexibility.

At least one person fell where the median suddenly ends, and at least two others fell from the top of the bridge while trying to cross the 3-foot gap.

Fishermen and locals suggest many others have fallen.

Last month, attention mounted when two anglers fell from the bridge in separate incidents.

While fishing, Aaron Motta, plummeted through the center of the gap and into the water. He was trying to cross the median near the top of the bridge, about 30 feet above the water.

A few weeks later Joseph Schlag, 31, of Pinellas Park fell from the same area and fractured his skull on a concrete piling. He remains at Bayfront Medical Center in fair condition.

Both incidents prompted the state Department of Transportation to put up orange netting and plywood to block access to the 100-foot-long opening.

"We're still investigating," said Marianne Scorza, spokeswoman for the department. She said guardrails have been considered.

•••

Alvarez filed a lawsuit in September against Flatiron Construction Co., which built the bridge, and the state transportation department.

The suit alleges the construction company failed to warn pedestrians of the opening in the bridge and created a "dangerous illusion that the bridge was connected to a walkway."

She is seeking more than $15,000 in damages.

"They should have put a warning sign up there — something to alert people that there is a danger there," said Alvarez's attorney, Daniel Kaufman of Sunrise in Broward County.

The gaping hole in the bridge has left many dumbstruck.

"If there is a hazard, or if it is inviting, I suppose it could be sealed off," said Bob Szatynski, a project manager for the bridge.

Szatynski, who works for the architectural firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, based in New York City, said the space allows access for maintenance crews and a degree of elasticity on the bridge.

Because the two spans of the bridge "react differently" and move separately on the sea floor, the opening was necessary, Szatynski said.

"Whatever you seal it off with — it can crack," Szatynski said. "Nothing is completely safe."

The bridge was rebuilt over four years, reopening in 2010. Each span was constructed separately, and reaches about 30 feet above John's Pass.

For Alvarez, the bridge is only a horrible memory.

Soccer, once her passion, is off limits. She can walk again, but only for short periods of time.

The 19-year-old decided to focus on visual art instead of sports.

She moved to New York City, where she attends the School of Visual Arts.

"Some days I am in pain," Alvarez said. "I try and work with my injuries as much as possible."

Michael Finch II can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @mike_finch2.

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