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5 Confirmed Dead in Bridge Collapse

The confirmed number of deaths in the Minneapolis bridge collapse is now five. The medical examiner's office says a fifth body was recovered overnight.
/ Source: WTMJ-TV and JSOnline.com

The confirmed number of deaths in the Minneapolis bridge collapse is now five. The medical examiner's office says a fifth body was recovered overnight.

MINNEAPOLIS - The confirmed number of deaths in the Minneapolis bridge collapse is now five. The medical examiner's office says a fifth body was recovered overnight.

Authorities warned the final number will go higher as divers search the Mississippi River. Eight people are still unaccounted for.

Four of the dead have been identified so far by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner:

- Sherry Lou Engebretsen, 60, of Shoreview, who died of multiple blunt force injuries.

- Julia Blackhawk, 32, of Savage, who died of blunt force trauma.

- Patrick Holmes, 36, of Moundsview, who drowned.

- Artemio Trinidad-Mena, 29, of Minneapolis, who died of blunt force injuries and probable drowning.

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

The center of the 35W bridge was the first part to go, and the rest followed, with the steel beams and supports caving like an accordion as the bridge folded. The entire collapse took just four seconds.

Rescuers told a TV station that they found one man dying in his crushed car. They tried to treat him, but he passed away.

A University of Minnesota student who was with the man as he died told TODAY'S TMJ4 anchor Mike Jacobs that the paramedics told him the victim would not make it. The man was losing so much blood and trapped in his vehicle.

The man asked for privacy and rescuers stepped away as he made two calls to say goodbye, the student said. A firefighter then sat with the man to pray and, according to the student, three-fourths of the way through the prayer, the victim died.

The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the midst of being repaired and two lanes in each direction were closed when the bridge buckled during evening rush hour Wednesday. Emergency crews resumed their cleanup and recovery work Thursday morning.

"It was a 30- to 50-foot free fall and my truck was completely split in half," said one survivor.

"Our car was at this awful angle, you know, just smashed in, and we were on top of a smaller car," said another survivor.

Survivor Dennis Winegar told TODAY'S TMJ4 reporter Jay Olstad that he had to hop a median and concrete debris, then walk up the riverbank to get out of his car and off the bridge. He said immediately after the collapse there was total silence.

Wisconsinite Nick Skavlem lives steps away from the bridge and was home at the time of the collapse.

"The whole house basically started shaking for about three to five seconds," the Franklin native said. He drives over the bridge "all the time."

"This easily could have been me or my roommates who drive there every day," he said.

A pair of men from a nearby apartment building said they helped several victims. They told KARE-TV that they carried a bloodied, delusional pregnant woman away from the scene. They also said they saw another man with blood on his face and an apparent broken jaw.

They also said they saw crushed cars, floating cars and one car bent in half.

Divers were pulled from the water again Thursday afternoon due to treacherous currents combined with jagged debris.

Earlier Thursday, divers were in the river checking for bodies and taking 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.

Authorities announced just before 10:30 p.m. Wednesday that the rescue effort had become a recovery effort, which usually indicates limited expectation of finding new survivors.

A FAMILY'S HOPES DASHED

More than 20 families gathered in a hotel ballroom in the early morning hours Thursday, waiting for word on loved ones who couldn't be located. Twenty to 30 people are missing after the collapse.

Earlier Thursday, a man whose wife is now one of the four confirmed fatalities and his two daughters had been painfully optimistic that their wife and mother was alive.

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.

Daughter Jessica said, ""I haven't eaten, I haven't slept, it's just, you can't even explain the feeling."

""It's just kinda surreal, but we gotta stick together and be a family," said Sherry's other daughter, Anne. "That's what she'd want us to do.

"My mom's a fighter. She'll make it," Anne said. "She's a strong woman. She's gonna come back home. She's gonna be home."

Both daughters were adopted from Colombia when they were babies. "I think we are two of the luckiest girls in the nation right now because our parents are wonderful people," Anne said.

"Just please pray, that's all we can ask for," said Jessica. "Just hoping, just be positive and everything will be OK."

Ron said that Sherry took an atypical route home. She usually avoided 35W because of the construction. "And that decision was hers, a decision we all support," he said. "I traveled that bridge for 35 years going into Minneapolis. You have certain feelings about that bridge."

THE AFTERMATH

The bridge collapsed Wednesday at 6:05 p.m. A tractor-trailer caught fire, and flame and black smoke billowed into the sky.

Some people were stranded on parts of the bridge that aren't completely in the water. All survivors stuck on the bridge were removed within three hours of the collapse. All 18 construction workers who'd been working on the bridge were accounted for except one.

An estimated 50 vehicles plunged into the water and onto the land below, the Star-Tribune reported.

Rescuers called off the search as nightfall made it too dangerous to search the waters filled with chucks of the mangled bridge and automobiles.

Seventy-nine people were confirmed injured. Six people were listed in critical condition Wednesday at the Hennepin County Medical Center, according to Dr. Joseph Clinton. The hospital sent out an "alert orange" Wednesday night, calling all available, off-duty staff to work. One doctor said the was "blood everywhere."

Bridge Collapsing - CNN

Watch Thursday Chopper footage from KARE-TV

If you know someone in Minneapolis-St. Paul affected by the collapse call our TMJ4 Tipline at 414-963-4444.

Mayor R.T. Rybeck was grateful to those who helped others without having to.

"One thing I know is that the people of Minneapolis are like the people of Milwaukee, at a time like this (they) open their hearts and their arms," he said.

Milwaukee Fire Chief Doug Holton has offered to help Minneapolis officials with the bridge collapse. The chief is willing to send members from Milwaukee's Heavy Urban Response Team to help. Chief Holton is the former fire chief of St. Paul, Minn.

Watch a hospital press conference via KARE-TV

Watch uncut ground footage from KARE-TV

Watch uncut, recorded coverage from KARE-TV

Watch raw Chopper footage from KARE-TV

Watch more raw Chopper footage from KARE-TV

Watch still images from CNN, submitted by a viewer

THE BRIDGE

The bridge was under construction, undergoing resurfacing. Traffic had been reduced to one or two lanes in each direction at the time. An estimated 145,000 cars pass over the bridge every day.

The construction company working on the job, Progressive Contractors, said it has no idea what may have caused this collapse. Workers had been on this repair project for about six weeks.

Minneapolis' mayor called the highway the most important roadway into the city. Authorities are estimating that at least a year before the bridge could be rebuilt.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the bridge was inspected by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2005 and 2006 and that no structural problems were noted. "There were some minor things that needed attention," he said.

Police Chief Dolan said officers were checking other bridges as a precaution.

The steel-arched bridge, which was built in 1967, rose about 64 feet above the river and stretched about 1,900 feet across the river. The bridge was built with a single 458-foot-long steel arch to avoid putting any piers in the water that might interfere with river navigation.

The bridge collapsed where the freeway crosses the river near University Avenue from Minneapolis to St. Paul.

"There were two lanes of traffic, bumper to bumper, at the point of the collapse. Those cars did go into the river," Minneapolis Lt. Huffman. "At this point there is nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a structural collapse."

The highway vaults over a railroad, another road and the river. A tanker train car was trapped under the bridge.

The Homeland Security Department had received no indications Wednesday night that the collapse was an act of terrorism, department spokesman Russ Knocke said in Washington.

"We continue to monitor the situation. At this time, there's no indication of a nexus to terrorism," Knocke said.

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 SCHOOL BUS

A burning semi-truck and a school bus clung to one slanted slab, while up to 50 vehicles might be in the river.

Fifty-two children on the school bus around the ages of 9-11 were rescued. Eight were taken to area hospitals, but all were expected to be OK. Two adults on the bus were also injured.

"I realized the school bus was... right next to me, and me and a couple other guys went over and started lifting the kids off the bridge," said one Good Samaritan. "They were yelling, screaming, bleeding, I think there was some broken bones."

Christine Swift's 10-year-old daughter, Kaleigh, was on the bus, returning from a field trip to Bunker Hills in suburban Blaine. She said her daughter called her about 6:10 p.m.

"She was screaming, 'The bridge collapsed,"' Swift said.

Swift said a police officer told her all the kids got off the bus safely.

THE INVESTIGATION BEGINS

The first step of the federal investigation will be to recover pieces of the bridge and reassemble them, kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, to try and determine what happened, NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said.

Investigators also want to review video of the collapse, and were setting up a phone number for witnesses to call with information.

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

As the divers worked their way around at least a dozen submerged vehicles, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced a $5 million grant to help pay for rerouting traffic patterns around the disaster site. Members of the state's congressional delegation said up to $100 million could be available for repairs and recovery.

In 2005, the 40-year-old bridge had been rated as "structurally deficient" and possibly in need of replacement, according to a federal database. The span rated 50 on a scale of 120 for structural stability in that review, White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general last year criticized the Federal Highway Administration's oversight of interstate bridges, saying investigators found incorrect or outdated maximum weight limit calculations and weight limit postings in the National Bridge Inventory and in states' bridge databases.

Incorrect load ratings could endanger bridges by allowing heavier vehicles to cross than should be allowed, the inspector general said. The audit didn't identify any Minnesota bridges beyond noting that 3 percent of the state's bridges were structurally deficient, placing it at the low end among states.

Pawlenty said Thursday that there was no indication from that and other reviews that the bridge should be shut down. Peters added, "None of those ratings indicated there was any kind of danger."

OTHER BRIDGE COLLAPSES

Fortunately, bridge collapses are rare in this country and elsewhere. One of the worst collapses in recent memory came in 2002, when a barge hit a bridge in Oklahoma, sending a 500-foot section into the Arkansas River. Fourteen people died in that disaster.

In Milwaukee back in 2000, a section of the Hoan Bridge almost collapsed when two steel guarders cracked, closing the bridge for months.

Engineers blamed design flaws in part for that failure. Widely accepted engineering practices at the time later proved unreliable. The 35W bridge was built about the same time as the Hoan.

Investigators there say it's still too early to tell why the bridge fell.

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jamie Winegar of Houston said she was sitting in traffic when all of a sudden she started hearing "boom, boom, boom and we were just dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping."

The car she was riding in landed on top of a smaller car but did not fall into the water. She said her nephew yelled, "'It's an earthquake!' and then we realized the bridge was collapsing."

Melissa Hughes, 32, of Minneapolis said she was driving home across the bridge when she went down when the western edge in the collapse.

"You know that free fall feeling? I felt that twice," said Hughes, who was not injured.

A pickup ended up on top of her car, partially crushing the top and back end.

"I had no idea there was a vehicle on my car," she said. "It's really very surreal."

Ramon Houge told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he was on his way home from work on the bridge when heard a rumbling noise, saw the ground collapse and cars go down.

Traffic was tightly congested and hundreds of people would have been involved, he said. He said cars backed up as best they could and he parked in a construction zone and was finally able to turn around and drive off the bridge. "It didn't seem like it was real," he said.

Gregory Wernick Sr., Rockford, Ill., drove over the bridge shortly before the collapse. He stopped to get a drink nearby and heard commotion so he went back.

"I figure I crossed about 10 minutes before it happened," he said. "That's just too close to call."

He was standing about 200 feet away on top of a parking ramp with large group of people.

"I've never seen anything like this," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.