‘Unseen but indescribable’: FDOT’s last dive team saves lives inspecting bridges

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 6:56 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Many of us drive across a bridge nearly every day and seldom think twice about whether it’s safe.

We can take it for granted because of bridge inspections, even when the supports are deep under water.

It was a regular work day for the district three Florida Department of Transportation dive team. The four person crew is suited up, ready to inspect and protect.

“I believe it was 1985, there was a bridge that collapsed because the steel piles underneath had corroded to the point it could no longer hold the weight of the bridge. And at that point, the federal highway decided to come up with an underwater inspection side of the house,” said FDOT dive team senior inspector, Macon Ponder.

Even in more recent years— bridge failures have lead to catastrophe.

In 2007, the I-35 west bridge collapse in Minneapolis killed 13 people and injured 145. Closer to home, a 2019 collapse on Hutchinson Ferry Road injured two drivers.

That’s why one North Florida team inspects 2,000 bridges across 16 counties from Escambia to Jefferson. Ponder, said the work can take days, even weeks to complete.

The team is faced with every weather scenario and even unwanted guests in the deep blue.

“We play with the alligators, the sharks and the snakes, when I tell my family and they are like, ‘absolutely not, I would never do that,’ but to get a good four man dive crew to do what we do is very important, and we are hard to come by,” said Ponder.

FDOT spokesman Ian Satter said this is the only full time dive crew left at the agency. The team is tasked with nspecting state and local bridges in oceans, rivers and creeks, getting up close and personal with the underside of bridges and the pilings and girders that keep traffic flowing smoothly.

Satter explained, “They are not only under this bridge, they will inspect this entire bridge, top to bottom, and go over every single part of it to make sure there is not a maintenance issue.”

The team cleans roughly 10 percent of the structure to look for any cracks, or scours, using hammers and cameras to document their findings.

“Most of the defects we find our topside deficiencies your bridge deck and columns going into the water, but for the most part most of the piles are in excellent shape,” explained Ponder.

These certified specialized divers swim in the murkiest waters, the darkest of culverts, eyeing any signs of danger

“We are behind the scenes a lot of the time, and I think a lot of people don’t even know that FDOT has divers,” Ponder admitted.

Those underwater are unseen, but indispensable.

“It’s essential to keep them going, they are a highly skilled team and we have a lot of faith in their abilities, and time and time again they are out there doing jobs that others quite frankly can’t do,” said Satter.

“Before I got into bridge inspection, I don’t think you pay any mind to it, you just think you will be safe when you cross a bridge,” Ponder said. “You know, now there’s a lot that goes into it, a lot for us to look at. I can say every bridge we cross in the state of Florida, I feel comfortable putting my family across it.”

While this is the only full time state dive crew, other outside teams are contracted to do inspections in other parts of the state, and to help during emergencies, like hurricanes.

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