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Under-designed gusset plates to blame for Minneapolis bridge collapse - official investigation concludes

The US National Transportation Safety Board has determined the probable cause of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in August last year was the inadequate load capacity of gusset plates due to a design error by Sverdrup & Parcel and Associates.

The NTSB concluded after a two day hearing on Thursday and Friday that gusset plates at the U10 nodes failed under a combination of substantial increases in the weight of the bridge, which resulted from previous modifications, and the traffic and concentrated construction loads on the bridge on the day of the accident.

Contributing to the design error was the failure of Sverdrup & Parcel's quality control procedures to ensure that the appropriate main truss gusset plate calculations were performed for the I-35W bridge and the inadequate design review by federal and state transportation officials, said the Board.

Also contributing was the generally accepted practice among US Federal and State transportation officials of giving inadequate attention to gusset plates during inspections for conditions of distortion, such as bowing, and of excluding gusset plates in load rating analysis.

"We believe this thorough investigation should put to rest any speculation as to the root cause of this terrible accident and provide a roadmap for improvements to prevent future tragedies," said NTSB acting chairman Mark Rosenker. "We came to this conclusion only through exhaustive efforts to eliminate each potential area that might have caused or contributed to this accident.

"Bridge designers, builders, owners, and inspectors will never look at gusset plates quite the same again, and as a result, these critical connections in a bridge will receive the attention they deserve in the design process, in future inspections, and when bridge load rating analyses are performed.

"By addressing all three areas in our recommendations, we are hopeful that industry and government bodies will take appropriate action and the American people can continue to have confidence in the safety of our nation's bridges," he added.

Shortly after 6pm on Wednesday 1 August 2007, the eight-lane, 580m long I-35W highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, experienced a catastrophic failure in the main span of the deck truss.

As a result, a 300m section of the deck truss collapsed, with about 140m of the main span falling into the river. A total of 111 vehicles were on the portion of the bridge that collapsed. Of these, 17 were recovered from the water.

As a result of the bridge collapse, 13 people died, and 145 people were injured.

During its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board learned that 24 under-designed gusset plates, which were about half the thickness of properly sized gusset plates, escaped discovery in the original review process and were incorporated into the design and construction of the bridge.

On the day of the collapse, roadwork was underway on the I-35W bridge, and four of the eight travel lanes (two outside lanes northbound and two inside lanes southbound) were closed to traffic. In the early afternoon, construction equipment and construction aggregates (sand and gravel for making concrete) were delivered and positioned in the two closed inside southbound lanes.

The equipment and aggregates, which were being staged for a concrete pour of the southbound lanes that was to begin about 7pm were positioned toward the south end of the centre section of the deck truss portion of the bridge near node U10 and were in place by about 2.30pm.

Shortly after 6pm a lateral instability at the upper end of the L9/U10W diagonal member led to the subsequent failure of the U10 node gusset plates on the centre portion of the deck truss. Because the deck truss portion of the I-35W bridge was considered non-load-path-redundant, the total collapse of the deck truss was unavoidable once the gusset plates at the U10 nodes failed.

The NTSB examined other possible collapse scenarios - such as corrosion damage found on the gusset plates at the L11 nodes and elsewhere, fracture of a floor truss, pre-existing cracking in the bridge deck truss or approach spans, temperature effects and shifting of the piers - and found that none of these played a role in the accident.

As a result of its investigation, the NTSB made nine recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials dealing with improving bridge design review procedures, bridge inspection procedures, bridge inspection, training and load rating evaluations.

Bridge designer Sverdrup & Parcel was an American civil engineering company formed in 1928 by Leif Sverdrup and his college engineering professor John Parcel. The company worked primarily in a specialty field of bridges. Many of the company's projects were located in the St. Louis, Missouri area near the company's headquarters. Sverdup & Parcel was succeeded by Sverdrup Civil, which in 1999 was part of the merger between Sverdrup and Jacobs Engineering

A synopsis of the Board's report, including the probable cause, conclusions, and recommendations, is available on the NTSB's website

The Board's full report will be available on the website in several weeks.

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