Maryam Algalay stood below the new Fern Hollow Bridge with several of her Allderdice High School classmates and looked up at the rows of massive 100-ton concrete beams that support the structure rising 100 feet above Frick Park.

Ten months ago there was nothing here but a 450-foot gap, after the old bridge that spanned the hollow for 50 years had collapsed with a boom on a cold winter morning.

It seemed a miracle that a new bridge had been designed and built so quickly. Yet Algalay seemed just a bit disappointed.

“I didn’t really expect it to look like this,” she said. She was hoping for a more elegant arch bridge, like the ones they’d designed in her engineering class. Some people compare it to a typical highway overpass. Algalay’s classmate Sam Alawadhi agreed. He thought about the Greenfield Bridge, which was rebuilt a few years ago. The new one looks much like the old one.

“It was an arch underneath,” he said. “And I feel like I see a lot of bridges like that in Pittsburgh — they have an arch underneath them.”

But an arch didn’t happen because it would have added several months to the construction schedule, something deemed unacceptable. That was a lesson that 11 Allderdice engineering students learned during a Friday morning tour of the bridge. The old bridge carried more than 20,000 vehicles a day, so getting a new structure in place as quickly as possible was a priority. 

The speed of design and construction certainly impressed the students. Usually, the process takes years.

“It’s surprising that it’s basically done,” said Thomas O’Brien, a senior. Construction began in May, and the bridge is scheduled to open Dec. 23. Workers were laying concrete Friday for a sidewalk designed for bicyclists and pedestrians. 

“I was impressed by the time range,” Algalay said. “Seven months to build a bridge, that’s really fast.”

The students took a moment to remember the day the old bridge collapsed. It was Jan. 28, and many slept in due to a two-hour delayed start to the school day. The bridge went down at 6:39 a.m.

Calla Fiscus, a senior, said her parents woke her up to tell her the news. She immediately texted her friends, “Are you OK? Were you on the bridge?” Her friends were fine, but she continued to worry. What about the people who hike along trails below the structure, and the homeless people who sleep under the bridge?

Maryam Algalay, left, and Calla Fiscus join other Pittsburgh Allderdice High School students on a tour of the new Fern Hollow Bridge on Friday, Dec. 2. Both are seniors. PennDOT civil engineer Bob Byrnes, who conducted the tour, met with the students in March to explain the expedited design and construction process. (Jason Cohn/Pittsburgh Public Schools)

Luckily, no one died in the collapse, although nine motorists were injured.

Senior Sam Alawadhi was initially confused when he learned of the collapse in a group chat. He wondered, “Which bridge is it?” He knew the Fern Hollow Bridge as the Frick Park bridge, because it passes through the park. But that confusion didn’t last long, and Alawadhi thought of all those times he and his father had crossed the Fern Hollow Bridge.

Like others, he wondered, “What if I had been on the bridge when it collapsed?”

Alawadhi later saw pictures of a red Port Authority (now Pittsburgh Regional Transit) bus helplessly stuck at an odd angle on the collapsed bridge deck. “It’s kind of ironic,” he said. “Those buses are always involved in some kind of infrastructure failure in Pittsburgh.”

A huge crane lifted the bus from the wrecked bridge in early February, providing Pittsburghers with yet another opportunity to go viral on social media with images of forlorn buses in awkward situations. In 2019, a giant sinkhole Downtown swallowed the back end of a bus, leaving the poor vehicle pointed skyward, as if ready to launch. Both moments have been re-created in Christmas ornaments, stained glass window hangings and on coffee mugs.

Engineering teacher Matthew Brinkman was guiding his class through an exploration of bridges when the Fern Hollow structure went down. He saw the process of replacing the span as an opportunity for his students to witness several stages of bridge design and construction. 

So Brinkman gave his students an assignment to design a new structure. They researched several different types of bridges and construction materials and met with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation civil engineer Bob Byrnes, who explained the expedited design and construction process.

Which design would be best? In the end, all students designed arch bridges. It made sense: The collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge looked like an arch bridge. (It was actually a K-truss bridge, but it looked like an arch.)

“They wanted the aesthetic to stay the same,” Brinkman said. But PennDOT decided on a beam bridge that could be built in less than a year. “Under our emergency declaration,” Byrnes told the students, “this bridge had to be done as fast as possible.” 

After the tour, the students stood on the west end of the bridge and looked at the construction equipment and trucks still on site. Temporary wooden railings and ladders line the walkways. A cement truck backed onto the bridge. It seemed there was still much work to do before the scheduled reopening. “I want to see how that works out,” Alawadhi said.

The group quickly scooted to the side to allow a backhoe to pass. 

“This is the quickest they can go, and they’re trying their hardest,” Fiscus said. “This is the easiest and most efficient way they can do it, and they’re still trying to figure out how to please the community around them. I think that’s amazing.”

PennDOT civil engineer Bob Byrnes talks to students from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School about the process of rebuilding the Fern Hollow Bridge on the west end of the bridge on Friday, Dec. 2. (Jason Cohn/Pittsburgh Public Schools)

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at