Minneapolis bridge collapses
MINNEAPOLIS --- A freeway bridge collapsed during bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic Wednesday night, killing at least seven people in what Minnesota's governor called "a catastrophe of historic proportion."
At least 60 were hurt in the Minneapolis disaster, which sent cars and trucks into the Mississippi River. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak Wednesday night could not confirm exactly how many deaths and injuries occurred.
The Interstate 35W bridge near the University of Minnesota, undergoing repair work the past several weeks, fell in four pieces, crushing several vehicles and causing some to catch fire. About 50 vehicles were affected.
Twisted girders towered above cars resting on pieces of the bridge deck. State and local authorities brought in boats to rescue victims from the river, National Guard and State Patrol helicopters flew overhead and hundreds of rescue workers converged on the scene.
"There were a substantial number of cars on the bridge," a Minneapolis police spokeswoman said.
Lt. Amelia Huffman urged people to stay away from the scene.
Other Twin Cities bridges were being examined, she added, but there was no indication the collapse was terrorism-related. However, there was a chance bridges down river could be damaged by debris.
By 10:30 p.m., authorities said it was doubtful more survivors would be found and they did not know how many bodies might be found after sunrise today.
Dr. Joseph Clinton said one person taken to the Hennepin County Medical Center had drowned, and said he thought that the hospital had seen the worst injuries by 8 p.m., two hours after the collapse.
Four victims had undergone surgery, he said. Victims were sent to many Twin Cities' hospitals.
Rybak said at least 50 vehicles were affected. Others said that many were thrown into the river, with more staying on the bridge deck.
The U.S. House Transportation Committee chairman said at least eight cars and a truck were thrown into the Mississippi.
"A school bus that just barely missed crashing into the water was damaged; students on board were bloodied and injured," Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., said.
Sixty students were on the bus, with two receiving serious injuries.
Witnesses were stunned.
"It took me a couple of minutes to realize what I was seeing," Joe Shulka of South Minneapolis said.
After the 40-year-old, four-lane bridge collapsed, Shulka walked on the nearby Stone Arch Bridge. He looked east and saw a bridge in the clear. However, that was another bridge, next to the ill-fated one.
Shulka said six or seven young men wearing black collars, much like Catholic priests, rushed south on the bridge toward downtown Minneapolis after the collapse.
Railroad tanker cars on a track under the bridge were crushed, but Shulka said it did not look like they were leaking.
Brody Israelson of suburban Mound arrived at the scene soon after the collapse, and walked down to the river flats.
"It is like a zig-zag," he said of the bridge.
Israelson said he saw an injured man sitting on a rock in the river some time after the collapse.
Construction trucks hauled the injured while emergency medical workers treated them, he added.
"A lot of people were asking if there was a way to help," Israelson said, but officials urged everyone - including off-duty police - to stay away.
Two hours after the collapse witnesses reported what smelled like burning metal at the scene. At about that time, Gov. Tim Pawlenty toured the scene.
Firefighters sent streams of water over the southern portion of the bridge, where the bridge deck portion sat at a steep incline.
All Minneapolis firefighters were ordered to report to their stations.
The federal Homeland Security Department said it did not appear to be a terrorist attack, but there were no early reports about what caused the collapse.
"It is likely this is not a terrorist attack," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty promised a complete investigation. He said no problems other than cosmetic blemishes were found when the bridge was inspected the last two years.
"Right now, we are focused on the rescue and recovery efforts," the governor said.
A nearby Red Cross office became a triage center.
Boats from Ramsey and Hennepin counties were in the river trying to find victims, Huffman said.
State officials set up an emergency command center in the Minnesota Department of Transportation building a block from the Capitol in St. Paul. Another was established in Minneapolis.
Two hours after the 6:05 p.m. collapse, rain began falling as a thunderstorm moved through the Twin Cities.
MnDOT has been working on the bridge, which is just northeast of Minneapolis near the University of Minnesota main campus, for weeks. An advisory the department issued early this week said the northbound lanes would be reduced to a single one Tuesday and Wednesday, while southbound traffic was to be restricted to a single lane Wednesday.
Traffic was heavy when the bridge fell into the river, not only because of rush hour but also because the Minnesota Twins baseball team was preparing to play in the nearby Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
A game planned with the Kansas City Royals today was postponed, as was a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Twins stadium. Wednesday night's game went on as scheduled.
The state inspects bridges annually and there were no immediate reports of any problems with the latest inspection.
Former Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg told WCCO radio that inspections have been hurt by recent budget cuts.
"The deterioration of the infrastructure happens very slowly," he said.
State Rep. Bernie Lieder, a former county engineer of bridge inspector, said some inspections during the recent repair work probably were competed by the contractor, supervised by state inspectors.
"Inspectors usually do a pretty good job," the Crookston Democrat said.
However, bridges built in 1967, like the one that collapsed, were constructed under less strict standards than those built today.
Lieder, who has been involved in road and bridge work nationally, said he can recall no similar bridge collapse in the country. They usually come during severe weather or earthquakes, and normally on older bridges, he added.
Bridges like the one on 35W should last a minimum of 50 years, Lieder said.
Lieder said he was puzzled why the bridge collapsed.
"It appeared to me it just dropped vertically," the lawmaker said. "That was something to me that was a little unusual."
Lieder said he could see no way construction work such as workers using jackhammers could cause the collapse.
A taxi driver who lives near the bridge said he sees a lot of problems with roads and bridges.
"They've definitely got to put a lot of more (money) into inspecting these things," Phil Thompson said.
Thompson decided to take back roads to avoid construction on the bridge.
"I feel kind of lucky," Thompson said from a bridge overlooking the disaster scene.
He said Minneapolis motorists actually were lucky due to the construction work.
"If you had the whole three or four lanes of traffic, you would have had twice the number of cars on that thing," he said.