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When Engineers Make Mistakes, People Die

On August 14, 2018, the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, collapsed, killing at least 39 people and destroying an important highway linkage. A replacement bridge was inaugurated on August 3, 2020,  but the question still remains: why did the 51-year-old Morandi Bridge collapse while 2000-year-old Roman aqueducts still stand? The answer comes down to several problems with the Morandi Bridge: unsound engineering, substandard construction, and poor maintenance.

The Morandi Bridge was a cable-stayed bridge constructed from concrete with steel cables embedded inside. The concrete protected the steel from corrosion, and the steel handled the tension of the bridge’s weight and traffic. In theory, this light, sturdy bridge with a maintenance-free concrete exterior was an engineering innovation. Unfortunately, Riccardo Morandi failed to incorporate two core principles of engineering: redundancy and maintainability.

In engineering, redundancy is the inclusion of extra components to prevent the failure of an entire system due to the failure of one part. Incorporating redundancy is crucial for any object on which human lives depend. For example, elevators have not one, but six steel cables that are each capable of supporting the cab. The Morandi Bridge, by contrast, only had four cable stays per tower and each was tasked with supporting a significant weight from a single point.

Failure of any one of these cable stays could easily cause the tower to buckle and fall under the imbalance of weight.

Another major problem with Morandi’s design was the difficulty to maintain the bridge. Even extremely durable structures with no moving parts need maintenance. Morandi’s design assumed the steel would be maintenance free because of the concrete casings, but he was unfortunately wrong. Due to increased traffic and deterioration of the concrete casings, the bridge decayed to the point where it needed extensive repairs in the 1990s, less than 30 years after construction. However, because of the same protective concrete casings, more corrosion occurred that could not be assessed, eventually compromising the bridge.

Even with these design flaws, the Morandi Bridge might still have been structurally sound. Shortly after the collapse in 2018, engineer Saverio Ferrari, who worked for the bridge’s construction company, testified that the bridge had not been built based on Morandi’s original specifications. Construction had been rushed, and the strength tests on the bridge pilings were improperly executed. Morandi knew about these problems and complained to the building crew. Construction continued anyways, and the bridge was opened in 1967.  By 1969, the bridge was already having problems.

With significant design and construction flaws, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Morandi Bridge needed serious maintenance, beginning in the 1990s. That cycle of repairs included fitting new cables to the outside of some of the original concrete stays. If this repair had been executed on all the stays, the Morandi Bridge probably would still be in service today. The reason the bridge wasn’t properly maintained could come down to any number of factors, like lack of resources or corporate greed by highway management. It wasn’t exactly clear why the bridge wasn’t maintained; there was plenty of concrete evidence that the bridge was in poor condition. Unfortunately, the extent of the danger was either ignored or unknown, until the bridge finally collapsed in 2018.

The Morandi Bridge disaster illustrates that nobody is perfect, even skilled engineers.  Perhaps Morandi thought his innovative bridge didn’t need redundancy. Perhaps he thought it would never need maintenance. He was wrong. Perhaps the construction company thought building fast was better than building right. They were wrong. Perhaps the maintenance company thought that the necessary repairs were too costly. They were wrong. There is no price too high to pay for the safety of other human beings, who are all made in God’s image and who all have eternal souls. If any one of the people who died on that bridge did not know Christ as his Lord and Savior, then that person has forever lost the chance. The stakes of engineering are high, because the work of engineers determines not just life and death in this world, but also in the world to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pianigiani, Gaia, et al. “Italy Bridge Was Known to Be in Trouble Long Before Collapse.” The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/world/europe/italy-genoa-bridge-collapse.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer. Accessed 13 Aug. 2020.

 

Bosotti, Aurora. “Genoa Bridge Collapse: ‘That’s WHY the Bridge Gave out’ Engineer Who Built Bridge Explains.” Express.Co.Uk, 20 Aug. 2018, www.express.co.uk/news/world/1004080/Genoa-bridge-collapse-Italy-why-structure-failed-Ponte-Morandi. Accessed 14 Aug. 2020.

Guglielmo Mattioli. “What Caused the Genoa Bridge Collapse – and the End of an Italian National Myth?” The Guardian, The Guardian, 28 Feb. 2019, www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/26/what-caused-the-genoa-morandi-bridge-collapse-and-the-end-of-an-italian-national-myth.

Images by mattiarainieri0 from Pixabay

 

https://pixabay.com/images/search/morandi%20bridge/

 

4 Comments

  1. Love the title! XD Well written!!

  2. INTERESTING!!! Saggy bridges are always a no-no!! 🙃

  3. This was so interesting Ethan! Also, loved the elevator reference XD Great work!

  4. Haha thanks y’all. I couldn’t come up with a better title, so I left it, in a slightly sarcastic mood. More elevators coming up!!