Daugh­ter crushed by bridge, fam­ily is long­ing for an­swers

Nine months af­ter their teen daugh­ter, Alexa, was crushed by the Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity pedes­trian bridge, the Du­rans want to know why.

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY MONIQUE O. MADAN [email protected]­amiher­ald.com

For 20 min­utes, Or­lando Du­ran swal­lows his sor­row in the flower aisle at Publix.

Pick­ing the per­fect bou­quet is para­mount.

One by one, he in­spects the posies for firm and sturdy stems, tight buds and bright, green leaves. Pe­tals must be healthy, no dis­col­oration or wilt­ing.

“There it is; this is the one,” he says as he points at an ar­range­ment of lilies, hy­drangeas and car­na­tions.

He takes a whiff: “My baby will love these.”

The weekly Publix run for fresh blooms is rou­tine for Du­ran and his wife, Gina. Their 18-yearold daugh­ter, Alexa, a fresh­man at Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity, was one of six peo­ple killed on March 15 when the FIU pedes­trian bridge col­lapsed onto un­sus­pect­ing mo­torists.

“When I want to see my daugh­ter, I have to go to the ceme­tery,” Or­lando, 61, says. “That’s our re­al­ity now.”

The four-mile car trip to the mau­soleum at Vista Me­mo­rial Gar­dens in Mi­ami Lakes is quiet.

With ev­ery pass­ing traf­fic light, their daugh­ter’s death be­comes more real. When the cou­ple roll past the main gate and onto the ceme­tery’s nar­row, in­ner roads, it hits them.

Or­lando places a pair of dark, re­flec­tive sun­glasses over his swelling eyes; a more ex­pres­sive Gina breaks out in a wail.

The thought of a moun­tain of con­crete man­gling Alexa’s Toy­ota 4Run­ner floods their minds.

Then come the flash­backs; the last phone call to her mom just seven min­utes be­fore the SUV was crushed while head­ing east on Tami­ami Trail. The im­agery of their daugh­ter’s be­long­ings be­ing re­turned to them in a large paper bag.

“I try re­ally hard to fight the thoughts,” Or­lando says anx­iously. He tosses aside last week’s batch of flow­ers, re­plac­ing them with the fresh blooms.

Af­ter wip­ing dust from Alexa’s name­plate and photo frame, he places two fin­gers on his lips and trans­fers over a kiss.

“In­stead, I just talk to her. I tell her about my week and beg her to help me be strong,” he says.

COP­ING

Pinot Gri­gio and a few rounds of pool at a nearby bil­liards es­tab­lish­ment usu­ally works.

Drown­ing out the re­al­ity of their daugh­ter’s death has been a tug-of-war for the frag­ile re­main­ing fam­ily of three. Grief coun­sel­ing hasn’t helped; nor has church. So­cial­iz­ing with friends brings more pain than heal­ing.

“I know they mean well but they want to know what hap­pened,” Or­lando says. “I wish I could say what hap­pened, but I don’t know what hap­pened. This was not sup­posed to hap­pen.”

But some­how, for a few mo­ments on Fri­day nights, the sound of a black eight­ball thump­ing against the foot rail of the pool ta­ble and car­oming into a pocket, as clas­sic rock tunes play un­der dimmed light­ing, brings re­lief.

“We’ve tried lots of things,” Gina, 55, says. “Pool is the only ac­tiv­ity that has given our minds some rest, at least for a lit­tle bit.”

Sleep­ing in on Satur­day morn­ings has be­come the norm at the Du­ran res­i­dence in Mi­ami Lakes; ev­ery other day brings sleep­less nights. The only thing that has re­mained the same is Alexa’s bed­room.

Her de­signer clothes and high-heel shoes re­main in a pile in her closet, un­touched; her book bag with text­books and school ID are in­tact, along with the heaps of makeup on her dresser. Her last cloth­ing pur­chase from Macy’s is still in its plas­tic bag.

“Time stops in that room,” Gina says, ca­ress­ing the wooden door. “Ev­ery­thing in there is the same. But out­side of this door? Noth­ing is the same.”

Her hus­band, who stopped work­ing as an en­gi­neer­ing con­sul­tant last month, says keep­ing the house clean and in or­der is hard — and cook­ing is even harder.

“There’s no en­ergy here, there’s no de­sire,” he says, point­ing at the untrimmed lawn, then at the pile of dirty dishes. “Just de­pres­sion.”

For Gina, man­ag­ing the fam­ily dry clean­ing busi­ness has been a 12-hour-aday es­cape. Af­ter Alexa, who worked with her mom as a record keeper, was killed, the fi­nances were in sham­bles.

“But a few months ago I fi­nally hired some­one to re­place my girl,” Gina says, pat­ting 17-year-old Mathew Men­dez on the shoul­der with one hand.

In the cor­ner of the store are re­minders of their loss. Hung side by side within a sec­tion of the con­veyor belt are Alexa’s prom and home­com­ing dresses, along with other gowns. Above those items is a piece of white tape, with the Sharpied words: “Alexa’s cor­ner.”

“I knew it was hard for her to see that I’m ‘re­plac­ing’ her daugh­ter, so I de­cided to get all of Alexa’s clothes and make a home for it,” Men­dez says. “She’s still here and this is still her home, we just can’t see her.”

Gina chimes in: “He re­minds me a lot of her and brings lots of laugh­ter in the work­place.”

But it’s the ab­sence of her daugh­ter’s laugh­ter that haunts Gina in the hall­ways of her home. She can­not bear it alone.

“Gina will not come home if no­body is home,” Or­lando says. “She’ll go to the store, or to a fam­ily or friend’s home, she’ll stay at work late but will not en­ter the home by her­self. Our home used to be a house full of laughs, and now it’s empty and dark.”

Dina, Alexa’s 22-yearold older sis­ter, oc­cu­pies her time go­ing to the gym and stay­ing the night with her friends.

“Un­like Gina, Dina holds ev­ery­thing in,” Or­lando says, point­ing at a photo from Dina’s re­cent Florida State Univer­sity grad­u­a­tion.

“So, af­ter mov­ing back home, not even three months af­ter Alexa was killed, it’s been a re­ally neg­a­tive at­mos­phere for her. It wasn’t a happy home­com­ing, and now she’s liv­ing with two heart­bro­ken par­ents. ”

Or­lando, once a mem­ber of Ecuador’s mil­i­tary, anx- iously taps his foot against the ground and clenches his fists.

“We’re all pro­cess­ing this dif­fer­ently. I’m the hard guy who puts on a front; I’ve mas­tered pre­tend­ing ev­ery­thing is OK. I guess that’s my job. Right?”

QUES­TIONS

Nine months af­ter his daugh­ter’s death, Or­lando Du­ran still has many ques­tions.

His first is “to God.” “Why? Why my daugh­ter?” he says. “That’s my first ques­tion. The rest of my ques­tions are to ev­ery­one else and are nev­erend­ing.”

Since the col­lapse, lit­tle of­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion has been dis­closed about what led to the tragedy. In Oc­to­ber, a fed­eral judge blocked the re­lease of doc­u­ments — sought by the Mi­ami Her­ald in a law­suit — that could have shed light on why busy Tami­ami Trail, also known as South­west Eighth Street, was not closed to traf­fic af­ter the un­der-con­struc­tion bridge de­vel­oped cracks that be­came known to the builder, the de­signer and the univer­sity but were not dis­closed to the pub­lic.

Re­cently, in an in­terim re­port, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board, which is in­ves­ti­gat­ing, dis­closed that it was likely a de­sign flaw — not con­struc­tion fail­ures — that led to the crack­ing in a crit­i­cal por­tion of the bridge. The find­ings lined up with con­clu­sions reached months ear­lier by in­de­pen­dent bridge en­gi­neer­ing ex­perts con­sulted by the Mi­ami Her­ald.

Those three ex­perts, con­sulted by the Her­ald, ze­roed in on a crit­i­cal junc­ture at the north­ern end of the 174-foot span as un­der­de­signed for the load it had to bear.

The ex­perts con­sulted by the Her­ald said the cracks were con­cern­ing enough that they should have prompted a work stop­page and a redi­rect­ing of traf­fic be­low the span pend­ing a thor­ough eval­u­a­tion, some­thing that did not hap­pen.

In­stead, af­ter a morn­ing meet­ing called to dis­cuss the cracks, a crew as­cended the span to ad­just the steel sup­port rods that ran in­side a di­ag­o­nal strut — pos­si­bly an ef­fort to close the cracks — the in­de­pen­dent ex­perts told the Her­ald. Traf­fic con­tin­ued to flow be­low the span right up to the mo­ment of the col­lapse, killing one crew mem­ber and crush­ing Alexa and other mo­torists wait­ing at a red light.

Lack­ing any for­mal, de­fin­i­tive con­clu­sion as to cause — or ac­knowl­edg­ment of ac­count­abil­ity — the Du­ran fam­i­lies and oth­ers whose loved ones died have been de­nied any sense of clo­sure.

“That is our frus­tra­tion, that they know, some­one over there knows,” Or­lando says. He pro­ceeded to list his ques­tions, barely breath­ing in be­tween:

Why did they have to put a bridge with­out fully test­ing it out­side its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion?

Why did they not close the street while test­ing this bridge? Who de­cided that?

Why, if they knew there were im­per­fec­tions — cracks — in the con­crete, did some­one not stop this?

Why did they al­low the cre­ation of this huge bridge when we only needed some­thing to cross Eighth Street?

Why did they not bring my daugh­ter out of the rub­ble as soon as this thing hap­pened? In­stead she lay there to rot for three days.

The an­swer that I want is: Who is go­ing to be held ac­count­able for my daugh­ter’s death?

Adds the an­gry but stoic fa­ther: “It ap­pears that they are try­ing to use time as a tool to di­lute the se- ver­ity of this case. The longer it takes, the less fo­cus there will be from the peo­ple; they will lose mo­men­tum, peo­ple for­get.”

He slams his fist on the din­ing ta­ble.

“It’s my right to know. I must know.”

That Thurs­day af­ter­noon, an im­mense slab fell di­ag­o­nally, al­most pre­cisely, onto the driver’s side of Alexa’s ve­hi­cle. For 72 hours, the teen was en­tombed un­der tons of con­crete.

For all those hours, Gina watched from a third-floor garage, wrapped in a Red Cross blan­ket. It was the only place with a van­tage point to see what was hap­pen­ing af­ter po­lice told her she had to leave the scene.

Or­lando, who was on a busi­ness trip in Lon­don, found out about his daugh­ter’s fate dur­ing a busi­ness meet­ing when re­porters called him hours af­ter the col­lapse.

But he made it just in time.

“I made it in time to see the res­cue pull my daugh­ter from un­der a bridge, crushed into a pan­cake. I had ar­rived in this coun­try to see just that.”

It’s not just le­gal ques­tions that gnaw at the Du­rans, but in­ti­mate ones.

What was she do­ing? What was her last con­ver­sa­tion?

As of late De­cem­ber, the only per­son who would be able to an­swer that — FIU stu­dent Richard Hum­ble, Alexa’s pas­sen­ger, who some­how es­caped the crush of con­crete — “isn’t ready to talk,” his at­tor­ney says.

Mean­while, the only hope the fam­ily had of recre­at­ing Alexa’s last mo­ments — un­lock­ing her iPhone — has di­min­ished. Af­ter Ap­ple told the fam­ily it couldn’t un­lock the de­vice, the Mi­ami-Dade State At­tor­ney’s Of­fice stepped in and gave it a shot.

“They said they couldn’t do it, that Alexa had too many se­cu­rity mea­sures in place,” Gina says.

“My baby girl is gone. What I want, is that my daugh­ter’s death not be in vain. Be­cause Alexa was not an an­i­mal that died in the street,” Gina says.

“They haven’t re­leased in­for­ma­tion. I need to get bet­ter, I need to get an­swers.”

As the fam­ily waits for up­dates on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the Du­rans are hop­ing to pro­pose a state law.

“A law that says that you’re not al­lowed to test a bridge with traf­fic un­der­neath,” Or­lando says. “If a bridge col­lapses, it can be re­paired, but life can­not be re­paired.”

CON­NEC­TION

For months, the stream of text mes­sages con­tin­ued. Or­lando would text his ab­sent daugh­ter.

First came the morn­ing texts from Or­lando to his “pump­kin.” Sim­i­lar lov­ing notes were sent at bed­time.

“Bye, my lit­tle girl, I will send you an­other mes­sage to­mor­row hop­ing you might an­swer,” one text from her fa­ther read.

“I’m sit­ting here with mom drink­ing and think­ing about you with­out say­ing a word. We love you and miss you,” read an­other. But then they stopped. “I stopped writ­ing in my tele­phone,” Or­lando said. “I used to write texts, ex­pect­ing some­thing. I was hop­ing for mir­a­cles, try­ing to con­nect.”

In­stead, he talks to her burial vault.

Stand­ing in front of Alexa’s bronze and gold name­plate, Or­lando ar­ranges the flow­ers in a small vase, wip­ing clean the photo of Alexa, who’s pic­tured in her black home­com­ing gown.

He closes his eyes, bows his head and makes the sign of a holy cross by touch­ing his fore­head, chest and shoul­ders.

“Last week­end we went to your cousin Robert’s house af­ter grad­u­a­tion,” he says. “I know you would have loved to go over there.”

He pauses.

“Pump­kin, just help us. Tell God to give us a hand, to help us ac­cept that you’re no longer with us.... When it’s my time, you bet­ter come give me your hand be­cause I’m gonna be re­ally scared to walk to the other side.”

Across the hall is an elderly woman, in­con­solable. The wail­ing woman ap­proaches Or­lando. For the next 10 min­utes, the hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing woman sobs as she tells him of her own loss — her hus­band of 60 years.

“I en­cour­age you to fo­cus on the good mem­o­ries and on all the time you had him for,” he says as he holds her shoul­der and calmly looks into her eyes.

The woman wipes her tears and thanks him for his kind­ness. Glanc­ing at Alexa’s photo be­side him, it dawns on her who was com­fort­ing her.

“Wait, aren’t you the fa­ther of the girl who got crushed by the bridge?” the woman asks in Span­ish.

Af­ter a long pause, he nods. “Yes, that’s me.”

‘‘ TIME STOPS IN THAT ROOM. EV­ERY­THING IN THERE IS THE SAME. BUT OUT­SIDE OF THIS DOOR? NOTH­ING IS THE SAME.

Gina Du­ran, dis­cussing Alexa’s bed­room

MA­TIAS J. OC­NER moc­[email protected]­amiher­ald.com

Gina and Or­lando Du­ran look at a photo of their daugh­ter Alexa last Sun­day at their home in Mi­ami.

MONIQUE O. MADAN

Or­lando Du­ran places a care­fully se­lected bou­quet of flow­ers at his daugh­ter’s rest­ing place.

CHARLES TRAINOR JR. [email protected]­amiher­ald.com

NTSB in­spec­tors stand along a sec­tion of the col­lapsed FIU bridge on March 16.

Cour­tesy of the Du­ran fam­ily

Alexa Du­ran was a stu­dent at Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity.

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