A week after a deadly bridge collapse, U.S. Navy divers cut through tangled debris with underwater torches and saws on Wednesday in the search for victims, while investigators identified a possible flaw in the 40-year-old span’s design.
At the dive site, two large cranes were ready to go. But they sat idle as divers returned to the water about 7 a.m., doing “a very meticulous, hand-over-hand search of the scene,” said their spokesman, Senior Chief Dave Nagle. Officials said they expected removal of heavy debris to begin later than expected to give the divers time to do their work.
Navy and FBI dive teams are trying to go deeper into the debris of the Interstate 35W bridge than the local dive teams that have worked since the Aug. 1 collapse, police Capt. Mike Martin said. He said he expects it to be at least a week before cranes start regularly hauling out large pieces of debris.
The FBI team had to abandon the use of the larger of its two unmanned submarines, agent Paul McCabe said Wednesday. The remote-controlled vehicle — equipped with a camera, sonar, lights and a grabbing arm — was too big to maneuver amid the unstable, twisted bridge wreckage and vehicles in the cloudy water, he said.
Instead, FBI divers will try their smaller sub, a shoebox-size vehicle equipped only with lights and a camera. Its smaller thrusters make it more difficult to navigate the Mississippi River’s stiff river currents.
Debris removal had been expected to begin this week. The State Patrol said 88 vehicles have been located at the collapse site, including those in the Mississippi River.
Potential design flaw found
Meanwhile, the company that was working on the bridge rejected a report that one of its workers had noticed unusual swaying of the bridge in the days before the collapse. Progressive Contractors Inc. had said that it didn’t believe any of its work contributed to the bridge failure, but the company hadn’t responded directly to claims of wobbling.
“We have now met with every single worker who was on the bridge when it collapsed,” Tom Sloan, vice president of the company’s bridge division, said in a statement. “None of them observed or reported any unusual swaying.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has said reports of wobbling will be part of its investigation. The agency issued a brief update of its work Wednesday, saying helicopter observations had found several “tensile fractures” in the superstructure on the north side of the bridge, but nothing that appeared to show where the collapse began.
Also Wednesday, NTSB investigators said they found a potential design problem with gusset plates, steel plates that tie together angled steel beams of the bridge’s frame.
Investigators are trying to verify loads and stresses on these plates at specific locations as well as the materials used to construct them.
Construction weight an issue?
One possible stress may have been the weight of construction equipment and materials on the bridge when it collapsed, the U.S. Transportation Department said in a statement on Wednesday.
Safety board and transportation officials said the increased focus on steel plates is preliminary. They would not say exactly where they were located on the bridge or whether their failure alone would have caused the collapse.
“We are continuing to make progress on this investigation, and each area of inquiry gets us closer to ultimately determining the cause of this tragedy,” safety board Chairman Mark Rosenker said in a statement.
Federal transportation officials were concerned enough with the NTSB finding to issue an advisory to states to “carefully consider” the weight of construction equipment used in bridge projects.
Gas tax proposed
Five people are confirmed dead in the collapse, with at least eight others missing and presumed dead. At least eight people were still hospitalized Wednesday, one in critical condition.
Also Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who is chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, proposed a temporary gas tax increase of 5 cents a gallon. It would pay for a new trust fund to repair and replace structurally deficient bridges on the National Highway System.
The trust fund would be modeled on the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for building and repairing roads and bridges through the gasoline tax. Money in the new trust fund could not be used for any other purpose than bridges.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged to support legislative efforts to repair the nation’s aging bridges, roads and schools.
“Our sadness must at least be met with a commitment to address our infrastructure shortcomings. It’s a huge task,” the California Democrat said Wednesday at a meeting in Massachusetts of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
New bridge planned
Flags flew at half-staff Wednesday — the one-week anniversary of the collapse — at the state Capitol in St. Paul.
At one observance Tuesday, people threw flowers into the river and poured a vial of water into the river after blessing it.
“This is how we can really reverence the silence of the dead,” said Sister Rita McDonald of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
State officials have announced tentative plans for a replacement bridge, with five lanes each way instead of four.
The new bridge also might be built to accommodate future bus rapid transit or light rail service.
Officials said they will start narrowing the field of potential contractors this week and by Sept. 1 they hope to select the builder.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the aggressive timeline — the goal is to have it open before the end of next year — won’t mean corners are cut.
“We are going to get this bridge built safely, number one,” he said at a news conference.