IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Minneapolis bridge collapse recovery stalls

MINNEAPOLIS - Difficult conditions hampered the search for bodies still trapped beneath the twisted debris of a collapsed bridge Thursday, as finger-pointing began over a report two years ago that found the bridge was "structurally deficient."
/ Source: KHQ-TV

MINNEAPOLIS - Difficult conditions hampered the search for bodies still trapped beneath the twisted debris of a collapsed bridge Thursday, as finger-pointing began over a report two years ago that found the bridge was "structurally deficient."

The official death count from Wednesday evening's collapse on the Mississippi River stood at four, but Police Chief Tim Dolan said more bodies were in the water.

A strong current and low visibility complicated recovery efforts, and divers were pulled out of the river Thursday afternoon so the water level could be lowered, said Inspector Jeff Storms of the Hennepin County sheriff's office. Twelve vehicles had been located in the river, officials said.

"We know we do have more casualties at the scene," Dolan said, though he said he did not have a number. "We have a number of vehicles that are underneath big pieces of concrete, and we do know we have some people in those vehicles."

As many as 30 people were reported missing, and the rescue effort had shifted to recovery.

Hospitals officials said 79 others were injured. Thirty-three people - five of whom are in critical condition - remain hospitalized in three local facilities as of Thursday at 4 p.m. CT, NBC News reported.

Bush to visit region
The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery that carries approximately 141,000 vehicles per day, was in the midst of repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour. Dozens of cars plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River, some falling on top one of another. A school bus sat on the angled concrete.

President Bush, who will travel to the scene of the disaster on Saturday, said the federal government would help rebuild the bridge - the state's busiest - in the city that will host next year's Republican National Convention.

"We in the federal government must respond, and respond robustly, to help the people there not only recover, but to make sure that lifeline of activity - that bridge - gets rebuilt as quickly as possible," Bush said. He also offered his condolences to the victims.

Still stung by harsh criticism of the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush talked with state and local officials in Minnesota, and the administration dispatched officials to the scene.

First lady Laura Bush will visit Minneapolis on Friday to console victims of the disaster.

The U.S. House Transportation Committee quickly approved legislation Thursday that would direct $250 million to Minnesota to help it replace the bridge.

The White House said a U.S. inspection of the 40-year-old bridge in 2005 found problems. The Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability and was classified as "structurally deficient," transportation officials said.

The designation means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement, and it was on a schedule for inspection every two years. "It didn't mean that the bridge is unsafe," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

Earlier, at the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said while the inspection didn't indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, "If an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions."

Investigations begin
Gov. Tim Pawlenty directed the Minn. Department of Transportation to hire the outside firm of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to conduct a parallel investigation with the National Transportation Safety Board. The firm also probed the reason for the partial collapse of a Boston tunnel.

NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said Thursday the investigation is in the "documentation" stage. Officials are reviewing video of the collapse.

Members of the public who took photos or video of the collapse were asked to call an NTSB hot line at (866) 328-6347.

Officials will look at any alterations made to the bridge over its lifetime and review inspection records for at least the past 17 years, Rosenker said, adding that his agency is working to create a computer model of the bridge to help determine why it collapsed.

A team of 19 people was coming to the scene to help with the investigation, he said.

"It is clearly much too early in the initial stages of this investigation to have any idea what happened," Rosenker said.

Other states to inspect bridges
Also on Thursday, Pawlenty ordered an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs, but said the state was never warned that the bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired.

"There was no call by anyone that we're aware of that said it should be immediately closed or immediately replaced," Pawlenty said. "It was more of a monitor, inspect, maintain, and potentially replace it in the future."

Governors in others states also scrambled to order bridge inspections.

'We are left with ... hope'
In the river, divers took down license plate numbers for authorities to track down the vehicles' owners. Getting the vehicles out was expected to take several days and involve moving around very large, heavy pieces of bridge.

Relatives who couldn't find their loved ones at hospitals gathered in a hotel ballroom Thursday for any news, hoping for the best.

Ronald Engebretsen, 57, was searching for his wife, Sherry. His daughter last heard from her when she left work in downtown Minneapolis Wednesday. Her cell phone has picked up with voice mail ever since.

"We are left with the hope that there is a Jane Doe in a hospital somewhere that's her," Engebretsen said.

As many as 50 vehicles tumbled into the river when the bridge collapsed, leaving those who could escape to scramble to shore. Some survivors carried the injured up the riverbank, while emergency workers tended to others on the ground and some jumped into the water to look for survivors. Fire and black smoke rose from the wreckage.

"People who were pinned or partly crushed told emergency workers to say 'hello' or say 'goodbye' to their loved ones," Dolan said.

Jay Reeves, 39, was one of the first people on the scene after the collapse. He tried calling 911, but all the lines were jammed. Then, he heard the sounds of children's screams from the school bus.

"I opened my car door and was greeted by the screams of lots of kids. Screaming kids are good. That means they're alive and full of a lot energy," said Reeves, a trained paramedic and the public safety coordinator for the Minnesota American Red Cross.

The children were sent back to his office, where he spoke to them and tried to calm them down while their parents were located. One frantic boy told him that his shoulder hurt, he said.

"I took his head in my hands and said 'you need to calm down. Take a deep breath and hold it,"' Reeves said.

Bridge being repaired
The Homeland Security Department said the collapse did not appear to be terrorism-related, but the cause was still unknown. Federal officials announced Thursday that $5 million would be rapidly released to help with efforts such as re-routing traffic around the disaster site.

This week, road crews had been working on the bridge's joints, guardrails and lights, with lane closures overnight on Tuesday and Wednesday. In 2001, the bridge had been fitted with a computerized anti-icing system that sprayed chemicals on the surface during winter weather, according to documents posted on the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Web site.

The bridge is blocks from the heart of Minneapolis, near tourist attractions such as the new Guthrie Theater and the Stone Arch Bridge. As the steamy night progressed massive crowds of onlookers circulated in the area on foot or bicycle, some of them wearing Twins T-shirts.

Thursday's game between the Twins and Kansas City Royals was called off, but the Twins decided to go ahead with Wednesday's rather than sending about 25,000 fans back out onto the congested highways. Inside the stadium, there was a moment of silence to honor victims.

The steel-arched bridge, built in 1967, rose 64 feet above the river and stretched 1,900 feet across the water. It was built with a single 458-foot-long steel arch to avoid the need for piers that might interfere with river navigation. The depth of the water underneath the bridge is between 4 to 14 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The collapse was not expected to have a sizable impact on barge shipments of grain and freight. The stretch of the river is largely used by recreational boaters and seldom by shippers, who rely more on bigger locks south on the river, said Bill Gretten with the Army Corps of Engineers.