Pa. fire chief, medic recall bridge collapse on 1-year anniversary
"You don't expect to actually see a giant hole where a bridge used to be — a bridge that I had driven across thousands of times," said Paramedic Jon Atkinson
By Megan Guza
PITTSBURGH — There is no concrete playbook for handling catastrophes.
The challenges and outcomes can depend on time, the environment, and maybe even fate.
The grim possibilities are endless, said Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones, and so those in emergency management and emergency preparedness must play the odds.
"There are so many what-ifs that you have, and we can't be prepared for all of them because we don't have enough resources," Jones said recently in his Strip District office, looking back on the events of Jan. 28, 2022, when the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed into a ravine in Frick Park.
"So we just have to play the numbers game — which one has a higher probability of happening? We prepare for those."
Despite Pittsburgh's hundreds of bridges, the collapse of one of them wasn't high on Jones' list of potential calamities prior to this time last year. Such disasters don't happen here — until they do.
"When you got 450 of them, maybe you need to start inching that one up the list a little bit," Jones says now.
Like many, he didn't even know the name of the Fern Hollow Bridge a year ago. Had the text message he received at home that Thursday morning included the name, he still would have assumed "bridge collapse" meant a pedestrian bridge.
"All the time I'm thinking this is a footbridge or some minor type of bridge," he said. "I'm not thinking a major roadway."
Once in his car, he heard the police scanner chatter that would later be played again and again on television and radio news broadcasts.
"Female screaming on the phone, possible vehicle over the bridge, stating the bridge gave out. Unknown injuries," says a dispatcher.
"It's not clear what's happening," another voice said. "We could either have a partial bridge collapse of the bridge that goes over Frick Park or we got a vehicle that wrecked off the bridge and fell approximately 100 feet into Frick Park."
Then, another voice through the static, this one from a Port Authority dispatcher: "I have bus 3309 that's on that bridge with several passengers inside, and he's confirming the bridge has collapsed."
Buses don't drive over footbridges, Jones thought. That meant it was a bridge that likely had cars and people atop it. A collapse that he believed probably meant mass casualties — injuries, possibly deaths, and who knows what else.
A career firefighter, he would help to coordinate the emergency response to the collapse, which sent several vehicles and the bus crashing down alongside twisted metal and hunks of concrete from the Forbes Avenue span that connected Squirrel Hill and Regent Square.
Ten people were injured when the 447-foot "K-style" bridge broke apart and fell into the park, sparking a massive response that by some twist of fate occurred the same day that President Joe Biden was set to visit Pittsburgh to tout an equally massive infrastructure bill.
In those minutes after the first 911 calls, which came about 6:40 a.m., what lay below in the ravine was unclear. Jones expected the worst, but that wasn't the case.
"There was no mass casualty because a few people on the bus, a couple people in cars — that was all that there was," he said.
The weather was in peak Pittsburgh-winter form: 26 degrees with a few flakes of the overnight snow still falling. Roads around the city were thick with dirty snow and slush.
Such weather can paralyze traffic sometimes, but Jones said he believes the wintry weather combined with the early hour helped to save lives.
"If it would have been a little bit later or there wouldn't have been a two-hour (school) delay, God only knows how many vehicles would have been on that bridge or if any school buses would have been on that bridge," he said. "It might have been a different story."
That has been the consensus from the beginning — that slush and snow and cold likely saved lives that day. Pittsburgh Public Schools were on a two-hour delay. It was barely the start of rush hour. There weren't many people on bus No. 3309 that early.
By the time Jones arrived, EMS District Chief Antwain Carter had established command of the scene, and Jones jumped in.
He and other first responders formed a human chain to help pull those who were ambulatory up the steep sides of the ravine. Four-wheel-drive vehicles were used to get to the section of park where the bridge fell to help bring the severely injured to the top.
Among them was paramedic Jon Atkinson. He was off that day but awoke to a barrage of text messages from friends asking about a bridge collapse. He hopped in his truck and drove to the scene, shocked at what he saw.
"You don't expect to actually see a giant hole where a bridge used to be — a bridge that I had driven across thousands of times," he said, explaining that he had previously worked on that side of town.
"For 17 years, I crossed that bridge a thousand times and never even gave it a thought," he said. "You don't realize how high up that bridge is until you're under it."
Atkinson ended up driving his truck beneath it, along narrow, snowy hiking trails to help bring the injured out. As one woman was bundled securely into the back of his truck, a man asked whether he could catch a ride to the top.
"Turns out he was on the bridge when it collapsed as well," Atkinson said. "He just wanted to get to work. I thought it was nuts — I'd be going to play the lottery or something."
Medic responded to Pa. bridge collapse, rescued woman from ravine in his truck
Pittsburgh Paramedic Jon Atkinson praised the EMS providers who responded amidst the challenging conditions
The rest of the day, and those that followed, played out largely within the public eye: social media memes, announcements of lawsuits, drone shots from high above the crumpled bridge, and the sight of a massive 450-ton crane hoisting a 60-foot articulated bus high into the sky.
Now, a year later, the aftershock of the bridge collapse lingers, despite its rebuild and reopening. Lawsuits filed by those who were injured are pending, and they continue to recover.
Court records document their injuries: Penn Hills couple Velva and Tyrone Perry suffered vertebrae fractures and spent time in full body casts. Bus driver Darryl Luciani still has physical and emotional pain.
And it's still unclear why the bridge collapsed.
In a report released Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board investigators offered new insight but no answers.
They've inspected multiple fractures in the legs of the bridge, which had been rated as being in poor condition since 2011. Testing at a government lab in Virginia is nearing completion, investigators wrote, and the results will be compared to "specifications referenced in the bridge's original design plans."
And a year later, Atkinson, the paramedic, still can't truly believe what happened.
"The biggest thing for me is not what we did, but 'holy (crap), this bridge actually collapsed,'" he said. "I can't believe nobody was killed."
He said while the entire incident was, as he puts it, unorthodox, he doesn't think he did anything terribly notable.
"It's just what he do," he said of those in emergency services. "You just kind of do what needs done."
And Jones said that despite the life-changing — and, he hopes, once-in-a-lifetime — incident, little has changed in the way he and his crews respond to emergencies.
"The basics are still the same," he said, pointing to three main goals: Life safety, stabilization of the incident, and protection of property. "So long as we're doing everything under those three, we'll be OK."
The what-ifs offer perspective.
"The X factor is, is it going to be a bridge collapse, is it going to be a building collapse, is it going to be a severe winter storm? A terrorist attack? What if it would have been a bridge that collapsed over water? What if the bridge didn't just pancake but tilted over?"
All told, he said, he doesn't think he'd change much of the emergency response that day. Everything that could go right did go right, he said, though the experience did show that the disaster odds he talked about might need to be recalculated from time to time.
"As the saying goes, I'd rather be lucky than good," Jones said. "And we were very fortunate. Lessons learned: Never say never."
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