A college student who narrowly escaped from a car that got smashed by a collapsing bridge said he watched helplessly as the structure tumbled down on top of the vehicle and killed the friend who was sitting next to him in the driver's seat.

Richie Humble, who studies at Florida International University, was riding in a car under the pedestrian bridge when he heard a long creaking noise coming from the structure that spanned a busy Miami-area highway. It sounded different from anything he had ever heard before.

Alexa Duran was the driver of a car that was crushed by the falling pedestrian bridge, her friend and passenger escaped.
Alexa Duran was the driver of a car that was crushed by the falling pedestrian bridge, her friend and passenger escaped.

"I looked up, and in an instant, the bridge was collapsing on us completely. It was too quick to do anything about it," Humble said yesterday in a phone interview with the Associated Press.

The falling concrete has already claimed six lives, and rescuers kept looking for bodies in the ruins of the structure, including that of the young woman who was at the wheel, Alexa Duran, whose family said she was dead.

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Relatives and friends of people still missing after Thursday's collapse gathered at the university, longing and praying for miracles as authorities tried to get inside the crushed cars still pinned under slabs of concrete.

Once he realised he was alive, Humble also realised that he couldn't get to Duran. He called to her but got no response. A group of men outside the car started yelling at him to try crawling through the rear window.

He made his way into the back seat but couldn't squeeze through because the window was crushed. The men outside grabbed a wooden plank and pried open the rear door to pull him free, he said.

"I was trying to get people to realise my friend was still in there," he said.

Crushed cars lie under a section of a collapsed pedestrian bridge near Florida International University in the Miami area yesterday. Photo / AP
Crushed cars lie under a section of a collapsed pedestrian bridge near Florida International University in the Miami area yesterday. Photo / AP

Rescue workers sent him away in an ambulance. He suffered cuts to his leg from glass and a slight fracture to a vertebra, but he was able to walk away from the scene.

He described Alexa as one of his best friends. They met at a mixer hosted by his fraternity and her sorority, and she had asked him to a semi-formal dance.

"That's when I saw a light in her, and we became best friends," Humble said. "I want people to know Alexa was one of the downright sweetest girls. People should cherish every moment you have with your friends, because you don't know when it's going to be the last time."

While the families waited for word on their loved ones, investigators sought to understand why the 950-ton bridge gave way during construction. The cables supporting the span were being tightened following a "stress test" when it collapsed, authorities said.

"This is a tragedy that we don't want to re-occur anywhere in the United States," said Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade police. "We just want to find out what caused this collapse to occur and people to die."

Workers push back a yellow tarp under a section of a collapsed pedestrian bridge yesterday. Photo / AP
Workers push back a yellow tarp under a section of a collapsed pedestrian bridge yesterday. Photo / AP

Detectives declared the rubble a homicide scene, and the National Transportation Safety Board arrived to investigate.

Scheduled to open in 2019, the bridge would have provided safe passage over a canal and six lanes of traffic and created a showpiece architectural feature connecting the campus of Florida International University with the community of Sweetwater, where many students live.

The US$14.2 million project was supposed to take advantage of a faster, cheaper and safer method of bridge-building promoted by the university.

Authorities have not confirmed the victims' names. The fatalities included a student at FIU. One person died at a hospital, and Perez said five bodies were located with the help of cameras but had not yet been retrieved.

In a Facebook post, Chelsea Brownfield said she was awaiting any information about her husband, Brandon. According to a GoFundMe page set up for the family, Brandon Brownfield was driving home from work when the collapse happened.

The outpouring of love we have received is incredible, my inbox is flooding with all your messages. I’m getting through...

Posted by Chelsea Brownfield on Friday, 16 March 2018

"The outpouring of love we have received is incredible," Chelsea Brownfield wrote. "I know you are all concerned for us. We still have not received any news or updates about Brandon Brownfield or the progress of the search (and) rescue."

The post ended with the hashtag "praying for a miracle."

Brownfield declined to comment in a message to the Associated Press.

Jorge and Carol Fraga feared their relative's car was trapped beneath the bridge. Rolando Fraga, Jorge's 60-year-old uncle, lives in the area and frequently takes the nearby turnpike to work, but no one has heard from him since midday Thursday.

"The waiting is so ... I don't have words for that," Carol Fraga said through tears.

The bridge was put in place March 10, five days before the collapse. It was supposed to open in 2019.

When finished, the span would have been supported from above, with a tall, off-centre tower and cables attached to the walkway. That tower had not yet been installed, and it was unclear what builders were using as temporary supports.

- AP