Thursday, August 02, 2007

Minneapolis Bridge Collapses into Mighty Missisip

The White House said Thursday that an inspection two years ago found structural deficiencies in the highway bridge that buckled during evening rush hour in Minneapolis.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said the Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 120 for structural stability.

"This doesn't mean there was a risk of failure, but if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions," he said. The bridge was 40 years old.

But it also pointed to problems with corrosion in the bridge's steel beams, "poor welding," and said it was designed under 1961 regulations that have since been rewritten with stricter rules.

RT Rybak, Minneapolis's mayor, said it was too early to pinpoint a cause for the collapse.

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.

A spokesman for the US department of homeland security said there were "no indications of a nexus to terrorism at this time".

First lady Laura Bush will visit Minneapolis on Friday to console victims of the collapse, which killed at least four people and sent dozens of cars plummeting into the Mississippi River on Wednesday.

Bush asked Federal Highway Administrator J. Richard Capka and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to go to Minneapolis, where she will announce a $5 million grant to help pay for rerouting traffic patterns around the disaster.

Bush called Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at 8:45 a.m. EDT Thursday to offer encouragement. "He said the governor was in the president's prayers and offered any support that we can provide," Snow said. Bush also called Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to offer his condolences and prayers for the losses, and he acknowledged the economic cost of losing a main transportation artery.

Bush then called Peters as she flew to the scene. "He stressed the importance of projecting hope and optimism and offering any help," Snow said.

The administration has sent federal help from the Transportation Department, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, Snow said.

There is no federal disaster declaration at this time. Snow was not sure whether there had been a request for one.

Emergency workers have been searching for up to 30 people missing after a road bridge over the Mississippi river collapsed, but said they believed there was little chance of finding any more survivors.

Police on Thursday said four people had been confirmed dead in Minneapolis, but the death toll was likely to rise.

"There's no question the fatality number will go up," Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota state governor, told NBC.

"We know there are a number of cars in the water we haven't been able to get to and they've been there submerged since last evening."

Tim Dolan, Minneapolis police chief, said that based on the number of vehicles thought to be on the Interstate 35W bridge at the time, there were 20 to 30 people unaccounted for, and more bodies were likely to be recovered.

"There are cars in the water. A dozen cars are visible. We don't know what's underneath. We haven't removed anything from the river. We're treating it like a crime scene," a police official said.

Luckily, the bridge was undergoing repair work when it broke into several huge sections sending vehicles, concrete and twisted metal crashing into the river.

Several workers who had been doing resurfacing work that closed some of the span's eight lanes were among those who plunged into the river when the bridge fell about five stories.

Pawlenty said work "relating to concrete repair and rehabilitation and replacement, guard rail replacement, righting replacement and work on the joints," had been taking place.

"This is not a rescue operation any longer," said Chief Jim Clack of the Minneapolis Fire Department. "It's a recovery operation, which means we move slower and more deliberately."

Emergency officials said the toll could rise as rescuers, hampered by burning cars and hunks of broken roadway, scoured the debris-clogged river. As many as 30 people are still missing.

"This is a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota," said Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "We are doing everything we can to make sure we respond as quickly as we can to this emergency."

It was not immediately clear what caused the Interstate 35W bridge to break apart. Witnesses described a lamppost-shaking rumble at 6:05 p.m. central time as the concrete-and-steel structure rippled from south to north, then broke apart, its 458-foot long central section plunging from more than 60 feet into the greenish water.

As massive swaths of concrete sheared off, vehicles on the bridge fell. Some of them plunged into the water, while others, including a school bus, came to rest on slanted sections of pavement at the cliff-like edge of the roadway.

Several of the vehicles caught fire and one tractor-trailer was sheared in half.

At least one person drowned. Rescue officials said many of the survivors were seriously injured.

Emergency service officials from away as far as 40 miles arrived on the scene. Racing against an approaching lightning storm and growing darkness, city officials dispatched boats and half a dozen dive teams in a frantic rescue effort.

Rescuers scrambled up and down the riverbanks, moving amid half-submerged cars and SUVs in the shadow of dangling concrete and blacktop overhead, their shouts punctuated by the cries of bloodied survivors.

In deeper water, divers launched themselves into open car windows, looking for victims. Rescuers helped motorists stranded in their cars inside a V-shaped gorge created by buckled roadway.

As late as 9:30 p.m., rescuers were still trying to search caverns of stacked concrete for victims, said Kristi Rollwagen, Minnesota director of emergency preparedness.

About 30 children, ages 5 to 14, were in the school bus, which was returning from a day camp. They were among the first to be removed from the scene and sent to local hospitals and shelters. Courtney Johnson of the American Red Cross said most of the children appeared not to be seriously hurt.

Emergency vehicles backed up several deep near the broken highway edge, where cars teetered on the edge. At the Holiday Inn Metrodome, within sight of the collapse, half a dozen police chaplains and Red Cross workers assembled to meet with family members or others seeking victims or survivors as huge banks of searchlights illuminated the scene of the collapse.

Concerned Minnesotans jammed cellphone lines, looking for news and the whereabouts of loved ones.

Announcers told the crowd at the nearby Twins game of the collapse shortly after 7 p.m., but officials decided to continue the game after a moment of prayer to help prevent more traffic from pouring into the chaotic scene.

the AP
The Cincinnati Post
The Houston Chronicle

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