How easily the Miami-Dade County Commission forgets the victims of FIU’s bridge collapse | Opinion

·6 min read

Before the Miami-Dade County Commission voted on whether to resume rewarding contracts to MCM, the politically connected builder of the FIU pedestrian bridge that collapsed made an unconscionable move.

The company contacted lawyers for the families of people who died when the bridge fell, asking if relatives would put in a good word for MCM with county leaders.

MCM wanted people who lost loved ones to poor design and lax oversight — and some who received paltry settlements because of the limitations of Florida’s wrongful-death statute — to write a letter stating that the company had acted in good faith in dealing with them.

“I related it to my clients,” attorney Yesenia Collazo said, confirming the solicitation of praise from victims.

A reprehensible proposition, but this is a company used to generously spending to play in the world of multimillion-dollar government contract procurement. It makes top-dollar donations to politicians. It employs their children.

So, why not tap still-grieving families, too?

But Magnum Construction Management, widely known as MCM — and before filing for bankruptcy after the bridge collapse, named Munilla Construction Management — reached out to the wrong guy.

Father figure lost

To Erik Rojas, nephew of one of the six people killed when the bridge dropped on top of them on March 15, 2018, the thought that the County Commission would award a multimillion-dollar contract to MCM “as if nothing had happened” was too much.

For the past three years, Rojas has remained largely quiet while “fighting hard for justice.” But hearing from Collazo that the company wanted his endorsement pained him anew.

“It triggered me,” Rojas, 38, said. “Since the beginning, this was beyond a nightmare. It’s so tragic, so hard to access. It has been struggle after struggle, disappointment after disappointment.

Rojas lost his maternal uncle, Osvaldo González, when the bridge fell. González became a father figure to Rojas after his own father was murdered in Cuba in 1993 by two drunken men. He was killed on Mother’s Day. Rojas was 9.

“He was the one who brought me to this country,” Rojas said of González. “He was more than an uncle to me. He was like my dad. He didn’t get the justice that he deserved.”

Rojas and his mother, Marisol, were the only blood relatives González had in the United States. In his will, he left them the house he shared with his longtime life partner, Alberto Arias, also killed in the pedestrian bridge collapse.

From left, Alberto Arias, his life partner Osvaldo González, both killed in the FIU bridge collapse, and Erik Rojas, the nephew González raised, pictured during a celebration in Miami of their Cuban hometown of Camajuaní.
From left, Alberto Arias, his life partner Osvaldo González, both killed in the FIU bridge collapse, and Erik Rojas, the nephew González raised, pictured during a celebration in Miami of their Cuban hometown of Camajuaní.

That fateful morning, when their lives abruptly ended on Southwest Eighth Street, the two men, who owned Classic Design Party Rental together, had just left the Kendall apartment of Arias’ mother in their white Chevy truck.

They were running errands and had promised to return for a savory picadillo dinner. Taking care of family was central to the men’s lives.

Learning of his uncle’s death on television, Rojas said, was “horrible.”

By the time police arrived with confirmation of the dreadful news, he already knew. González wouldn’t answer his cellphone; then it went dead. Knowing the men were traveling that route, Rojas scoured video footage and spotted what he thought was part of his uncle’s white truck.

In the aftermath of the ordeal, Rojas focused on taking care of his inconsolable mother and navigating every detail with the utmost care.

“How could I explain to her why he had to have a closed casket?”

He attended an early press conference with Collazo, the two families’ lawyer, but he said little. He wanted to shield his mother from more suffering, he said, and they kept their grief to themselves.

They couldn’t even stomach attending anniversary tributes at FIU to the dead and injured.

“The process was so ruthless, so bad, so nasty — it’s the only way I can put it — that we didn’t want to deal with anything else,” he said.

Wrongful-death statute

The process he’s talking about was the court mediation to distribute a $103 million settlement for bodily injury claims to the families of the six people who died and the 15 who were injured in the collapse.

Under Florida’s wrongful-death statute, which, through a complex mathematical equation, ranks what a dead person is worth, the nephew-to-uncle relationship isn’t recognized as valuable as a daughter or a spouse. A brother or sister doesn’t rank very high, either.

No one cared that González, 57, who came during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, had provided for Rojas when he was a child in Cuba, had supported him during the year he lived in Paraguay in 2003 and, after he brought him to Miami, housed, fed him and made sure he learned English and pursued higher education.

“It was as if his life had no value,” Rojas said. “He should have been respected in the same way others were appreciated. They [the dead] all should be honored the same way.”

A court-mandated confidentiality agreement prohibits Rojas and Collazo from revealing the amount of the settlement.

“The little money to get us to shut up,” Rojas, who works in human resources, calls it. “There is no money that can buy life, but while other people got millions, we got the tip of a waiter.”

For MCM, a $70 million contract

To compound the insult, MCM, the general contractor on the doomed project that killed his uncle, last week got closer to a huge contract from Miami-Dade commissioners.

Miami-Dade commissioners overrule mayor, pick MCM for MIA construction contract

The County Commission voted 9-4 to have the administration of Daniella Levine Cava negotiate with MCM a five-year contract to oversee smaller construction companies on renovation projects at Miami International Airport.

Voting in favor of MCM were Commissioners Rebeca Sosa, José “Pepe” Díaz, Sally Heyman, Oliver Gilbert, Keon Hardemon, Eileen Higgins, Danielle Cohen Higgins, Javier Souto, and Kionne McGhee (who had initially voted against but changed to a yes vote). Voting against were Commissioners René García, Joe Martínez, Jean Monestime and Raquel Regalado.

All did so without a single mention of the bridge collapse and the loss to families.

“Honestly, I was baffled by these people. It was totally shocking to me that there was no mention of the families of the victims,” Rojas said.

Said his attorney Collazo: “Shame on these elected officials.”

To the majority of the commission, the politics — and overturning Levine Cava’s recommendation to toss all bids and have MIA manage the construction jobs itself — were more important than the humans lost and those left behind to pick up the pieces of MCM’s neglect.

“They filed for bankruptcy right after the accident happened to get away with it. Why should they be allowed to do business again?” Rojas asks. “I’m so upset by it. Not a day goes by that we don’t feel the pain. Three years, and I still haven’t driven through that location. It’s a main intersection, but I go around it.”

He was working on a master’s degree in disaster management at Florida International University at the time of the bridge collapse, but he hasn’t been able to return to campus.

“It happened in front of the building where I studied,” he said.

Meanwhile, MCM can wipe the slate clean with bankruptcy — and that’s good enough for county commissioners.

No accountability necessary, only the trail of grief left behind as a witness.