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Several killed in Minneapolis bridge collapse

Editor's note: To ensure your department is prepared to handle mass casualty incidents, check out FireRescue1 Fire-EMS columnist Jim Sideras' article from last month.

By Jon Krawczynski
The Associated Press

Several people are killed when an interstate bridge broke into huge sections and collapsed into the Mississippi River.
Source: WZTV Fox

Related Video: Raw video of the bridge collapse
FireRescue1 Photo Gallery: Minn. bridge collapse

AP Photo/Jim Mone
The bridge over interstate 35W can be seen shortly after it collapsed.

Divers searched the Mississippi River for bodies still trapped beneath the twisted debris of a collapsed freeway bridge, as finger-pointing began Thursday over a federal report two years ago that found the bridge was "structurally deficient."

The official death count from Wednesday evening's collapse stood at four, but Police Chief Tim Dolan said more bodies were in the water. As many as 30 people were reported missing, and the rescue effort had shifted to recovery. Hospital officials said 79 people were injured.

A strong current and low visibility hampered the search, and divers were pulled out of the water Thursday afternoon so it could be lowered, said Inspector Jeff Storms of the sheriff's department. Twelve vehicles had been located in the river, officials said.

"We have a number of vehicles that are underneath big pieces of concrete, and we do know we have some people in those vehicles," Dolan said. "We know we do have more casualties at the scene."

The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the midst of repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour. Dozens of cars plummeted more than 60 feet (18 meters) into the Mississippi River, some falling on top one of another. A school bus sat on the angled concrete.

President George W. Bush, who will travel to the scene of the disaster on Saturday, said the federal government would help rebuild the bridge 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.

Officials dispatched
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 (euro183 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 did not indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, "If an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday 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. Another inspection was scheduled for completion in September.

"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."

Nationwide checks
Governors across America scrambled Thursday to conduct bridge inspections, ordering engineers to review the safety of thousands of structures.

Nearly 13 percent of America's bridges were classified as "structurally deficient" in 2004, meaning they are deteriorating, according to a report issued by the Federal Highway Administration. That was 75,422 bridges out of about 600,000 nationwide.

In the Mississippi 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.

AP/Minnesota Daily, Stacy Bengs
Firefighters wait for more help after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.

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

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.

The first step of the federal investigation will be to recover pieces of the bridge and reassemble them, much 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.

This week, road crews had been working on the bridge's joints, guardrails and lights, with lane closures overnight on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The steel-arched bridge, built in 1967, rose 64 feet (19.5 meters) above the river and stretched 1,900 feet (579 meters) across the water. It was built with a single 458-foot(140-meter)-long steel arch to avoid the need for piers that might interfere with river navigation.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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