They had just finished up lunch, and set off to run a humdrum errand: a drive to the travel agency to pick up airline tickets for their annual visit to their beloved homeland Cuba.
Osvaldo Gonzalez and Alberto Arias, friends and business partners, happened to pass under a Miami bridge that Thursday afternoon, the road bustling with fellow drivers also out on the most ordinary and unthreatening of life’s tasks.
A teenager was driving her friend to the doctor’s office to pick up some medicine. A father of three was heading home from work. A woman on her way to a nail salon was stopped at a red light. Seconds – inches – would soon separate those who would live from those who wouldn’t.
Sweetwater police Detective Juan Llera was at his office a few blocks away, when he heard what he thought was a bomb exploding.
It was not a bomb; it was a bridge, a structure every American has passed under hundreds of times. But in an instant, this 950-ton span under construction at the Florida International University collapsed, and with no time to act or to flee, the cars that just so happened to be below it were pancaked under the rubble. Six people died.
“Imagine,” said Amauri Naranjo, who has known Gonzalez since before he left Cuba in the 1980s, “a longtime friendship that survives even with the sea between us, and it ends because of something like that.”
Gonzalez and Arias, who together owned a party rental and decoration business, were among the dead. Their bodies were found Saturday inside their white Chevy truck as rescuers for days painstakingly dug through the debris of the fallen pedestrian bridge at Florida International University. Hope for a miracle rescue faded as the names of the six dead became known, and those left living grappled with the senselessness, the suddenness of it.
Many others had been saved by mere seconds.
Dania Garlobo was driving to work at a nail salon when the green light changed to yellow and a man in a white Mercedes tried to make it through the light, but stomped on the brakes just as the bridge fell in front of him.
“He was almost caught underneath. I couldn’t believe it,” Garlobo said. She watched the bridge smash into the street below in what seemed like an instant.
“How is it that a strong bridge falls down like a piece of board?”
Llera had sped to the scene, arriving within minutes. In the mayhem, he found a man lying unconscious on the street and started performing CPR. He could barely feel a pulse, but someone with the medical staff from the university came by and said, “you are keeping him alive. Keep going.” And so he did, and the man was alive when they rushed him away.
Llera checked in at the hospital but could get no information. He thought the man had lived. He’d hoped they could shake hands one day.
But on Sunday morning, he studied a picture on the news of a young man in a crisp red shirt.
He has been identified by police as Navarro Brown, a 37-year-old employee with Structural Technologies VSL, listed among those killed. He had died at the hospital.
“I feel like the bad guy won this time,” the officer said as he processed the news Sunday afternoon.
The families of the dead and the injured asked for privacy as they try to make sense of their sudden, inexplicable loss.
“It’s a pretty magical thing to find your soul mate in this world,” Brandon Brownfield’s wife, Chelsea, wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “Like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, our crazy curvy edges matched and we fit together like no one else could.”
The Brownfields had three young daughters, and the family moved to Florida several years ago for his job at Maxim Crane Works, according to a fundraising page a friend started for the family that had raised more than $50,000 in a few days. He was driving home from work when the bridge collapsed.
“I now have to find the words and the answers to tell my girls that their Daddy is not coming home,” his wife wrote on Facebook.
Investigators are still trying to figure out what caused the bridge to crumble. Cracking had been reported in the concrete span in the days before and crews were performing what’s called “post-tensioning force” on the bridge when it flattened onto the busy highway.
Inside one car there, one teenager was killed and one walked away with minor injuries – a fate decided by which seat they happened to be sitting in.
Richie Humble, a 19-year-old student, had not been feeling well earlier in the week. On Thursday, a friend, 18-year-old Alexa Duran, the nicest person he said he ever knew, gave him a ride to his doctor’s office to pick up some medication. They stopped at a red light, under the bridge.
“I heard a creak, a long creak,” Humble told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “I looked up, and in an instant, the bridge was collapsing on us completely. It was too quick to do anything about it.”
Once he realized he was alive, he also realized that he couldn’t get to his friend. As he called out for her, getting no response, a group of men outside the car started yelling at him to try crawling out of the car. They pried open the door to free him.
He sat on a curb as rescue workers checked out the cuts on his leg and slight facture in a vertebrae. He remembers asking, “What do I do?”
“Everyone has to pick up the pieces,” he said the rescuer responded. “Life doesn’t stop.”
Duran’s uncle Joe Smitha was preparing for a colonoscopy that Thursday afternoon when he heard a bridge had collapsed near her school. She was not answering her phone, but he said he was not worried. His kids sometimes didn’t answer their phones right away.
“I said, ‘What are the odds that out of the thousands of people in Miami that she would be one of six or eight people caught under the bridge at a red light?”’ Smitha said.
But then, after he awoke from anesthesia following the procedure, he learned she had been one of those six people caught under a bridge at a red light.