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Officials probe why airport beams toppled

By Ken Kaye, Staff writer

4:34 PM EST, November 4, 2013

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Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport officials are investigating whether a design flaw or procedural error was at play after five enormous concrete runway support beams crashed three stories to the ground on Saturday.

Assistant airport director Steve Wiesner said he's confident the beams were all structurally sound, and the accident likely occurred because they weren't securely placed on the runway surface, where concrete was to be poured.

"But we can't rule anything out," he said.

In all, 855 concrete beams are being installed over six tunnels through a bridge structure, which will allow the new $791 million runway to slope upward six stories on its east end. The beams are designed to support the heaviest jets.

In Saturday's incident, the beams – each 86 tons and 125 feet long – had been resting on a Teflon pad, giving them flexibility to expand and contract in the heat.

Shortly before 2 p.m., one started to roll, possibly because of train vibrations. It rammed into four other beams, and all five toppled about 35 feet through an opening in the bridge structure onto the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks below.

"It was like a domino effect," Wiesner said.

Five other beams rolled sideways into a construction pocket, rather than falling. None of those 10 beams will be used in the runway project because they could be damaged, Wiesner said.

No motorists were endangered because the lanes on U.S. 1 have been temporarily shifted. After the railroad tracks were cleaned up, trains started rolling again by 10 a.m. Sunday, said airport spokesman Greg Meyer.

The Broward County Aviation Department, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration are all assessing the accident where one construction worker received minor injuries.

"We don't think this will impact the schedule for the runway to be substantially completed on Sept. 18," Wiesner said.

kkaye@tribune.com or 954-572-2085.