Flying over Minneapolis’ collapsed highway bridge, President Bush got a bird’s-eye view Saturday of the concrete slabs and twisted steel that once spanned the Mississippi River.
The president’s Marine One helicopter circled the site several times during a 10-minute tour, allowing him to gaze down upon the muddy waters where some bodies are still trapped. He saw pieces of the highway littered with vehicles, including a school bus hugging a guard rail. Rescue boats below helped in the search for victims.
Later, Bush put on an orange and red hard hat and walked around the bridge site. Yards from the school bus, he stood with Gary Babineau, a construction worker who helped rescue children after the collapse.
Bush also planned to receive briefings on recovery efforts and meet with families and some of the victims.
Still criticized for his administration’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush hurried to Minnesota soon after the I-35W bridge buckled on Wednesday. The collapse sent dozens of cars sliding in the Mississippi River, killing at least five people and injuring about 100 others.
“Clearly, this was not something that we expected to happen,” said his transportation chief, who flew with the president on Air Force One.
‘We will do all we can’
In his weekly radio address, taped Friday and released before the trip, Bush said: “This is a difficult time for the community in Minneapolis, but the people there are decent and resilient, and they will get through these painful hours.
“As they do, they know that all of America stands with them, and that we will do all we can to help them recover and rebuild.”
In Washington, Congress approved $250 million to rebuild the bridge. A final vote was needed in the House on Saturday, but Congress would have to appropriate the money in future legislation.
Federal transportation officials have announced plans to investigate the agency responsible for inspecting highway bridges. The inspector general for the Transportation Department said the inquiry would focus on the Federal Highway Administration’s inspection program and ways to improve the agency’s oversight of more than 70,000 bridges that have been found structurally deficient.
Federal and state officials, meanwhile, are working with the National Transportation Safety Board to understand why the bridge collapsed.
“I don’t want to speculate before they get in and complete their work about what the cause was, but clearly this was not something that we expected to happen given the history of this bridge, the inspection process and how this bridge was rated,” Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said during the flight with Bush to Minnesota.
She spoke about the need to find better ways in the future to prioritize spending on roads, bridges and other public works.
“We certainly have aging infrastructure here in the United States ... but I do believe that American highways and bridges are safe,” Peters said. “But certainly we need to look to the future and make sure that we are spending our money where we need to be spending the money.”
‘This is just the beginning’
First lady Laura Bush visited Minneapolis on Friday to survey the wreckage. “Unbelievable,” she said as she stood on a hill beside the eight-lane span, which once carried 141,000 vehicles a day.
The government has announced a $5 million grant to help remove tons of debris and reroute traffic from the major artery in and out of Minneapolis. The White House said the president would support the necessary funding to get the span quickly rebuilt.
“This is just the beginning of the financial assistance we will make available to support the state in its recovery efforts,” Bush said.
Every time a disaster occurs in the U.S., the administration’s reaction is compared with its slow response to Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005.
In March, Bush visited survivors of tornadoes that ripped through Alabama and Georgia. In April, he offered words of hope at Virginia Tech after a gunman killed 32 people and committed suicide. In May, Bush went to Kansas after a tornado wiped out the tiny town of Greensburg.