Consultant suggests wind not cause of bridge collapse

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Words by Anton Pretorius

The collapse of a temporary bridge on one of Gautengs busiest highways on Wednesday, tragically killing two people and injuring 21 others, could be a case of poor workmanship. Director of Firedart Engineering Underwriting Managers, George Parrott, told RISKAFRICA that claims arising from this disaster are likely to run into the millions.

Those killed in the incident on the M1 highway near the Grayston off-ramp, on the edge of Johannesburg’s busy Sandton district, include a taxi driver, emergency responders told news channel eNCA.

On the northbound side, a blue Toyota Fortuner with five occupants in the car, was hit by the falling scaffolding. The front passenger, believed to be an adult male, died while the female driver was seriously injured and airlifted to hospital, reports IOL.co.za. On Thursday, Johannesburg mayor, Parks Tau, confirmed that a third person who had been reported dead is still alive, but critically injured.

Parrott says it might still be too soon to speculate on the extent of the damage and claims that could arise from this disaster, but that claims values would likely run to millions of rand.

“The collapsed structure caused massive damage to the roads and infrastructure. And obviously, there is loss of life involved, so there will be huge claims, no doubt. I can’t even put an estimate on this. It’s going to be a huge blow,” he commented.

RISKAFRICA spoke with Hillary Erasmus, communications manager at Royal HaskoningDHV, consulting engineers on the project. According to her, Royal HaskoningDHV is responsible for the construction and design of the new cycle and walkway bridge, while construction company Murray and Roberts were responsible for erecting the temporary structure that collapsed. Murray and Roberts could not be reached for comment.

“From our perspective, we are responsible for the design, construction, supervision and the administration of the phase 1 construction of the new cycle and walkway. Together with the client and the contractor, Murray and Roberts, who was working on the temporary structure that collapsed, we are attesting the situation and investigating the cause of the collapse,” Erasmus said.

“On behalf of Royal HaskoningDHV, we’d like to extend our heartfelt condolences to the people who lost their lives and to their loved ones and all those injured,” Erasmus said.

Cause of collapse: Strong wind or sloppy engineering?

Despite reports of strong winds, Erasmus said that the cause of the collapse has not been confirmed. “Although I can’t exclude that possibility, I don’t think, however, that this was the cause of strong winds,” she said.

She did not want to speculate on the real cause of the collapse but said: “There is a full investigation underway. Murray and Roberts is working quite closely with the client. Everybody is taking this very seriously,” she said. She added that an official statement will be made by Murray and Roberts and the City of Johannesburg soon.

George Parrott, director at Firedart Engineering Underwriting Managers, said that although the cause of the collapse can be attributed to strong winds, “engineers should have taken the seasonal Gauteng winds (common for this time of year) into consideration”.

“The bridge was still under construction and not fully secured. It also sounds like the wind played a big role. What happened here was very unfortunate. Gauteng is known for its gusty winds this time of year, so ensuring that the structure was properly secured should have been top of mind,” he said.

Emphasising the likely cost of claims, Parrot said, “There’s extensive damage to roads and infrastructure and even loss of life. I’ve seen some photographs. There’s lots of property and road damage, and even the clearing of the site will cost an arm and a leg.” This will also open the door for huge liability claims, he added.

“And that’s exactly what engineering insurance is there for, for situations like this when disaster strikes,” he said.

“If it’s found that the structure wasn’t properly secured, engineers and the client [the City of Jo’burg] will experience serious problems with claim payouts and might even need to carry the loss themselves.

Following a proper investigation, Parrott feels that this disaster might be put down to bad construction or design. “What surprised me is that Murray & Roberts are the contractors. They are usually very reputable. It’ll be interesting to see what the value and extent of the damage might be,” he said.

On whether Erasmus cared to speculate on the extent of the damage, Erasmus said, “Absolutely not. We’re the contractors. That is information you would need to get from the City of Johannesburg [Metropolitan Municipality] who is the client of this project who sit with the final figures,” she said.