- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Fears that an interstate bridge collapse might produce dozens of deaths eased today as authorities said the number of missing, once thought to be as many as 30, was just eight.

At least five people were killed and 79 injured when the Interstate 35W bridge plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River Wednesday.

Firefighters pulled the fifth victim, the driver of a tractor-trailer rig that was engulfed in flames immediately after the collapse, from the wreckage late Thursday, fire department spokeswoman Kristi Rollwagen said. Video of the fire was among the most compelling images show in the immediate aftermath of the collapse.

The medical examiner’s office was working to confirm the man’s identity, but Rollwagen said firefighters didn’t want the man’s family to see the truck “over and over” on TV knowing he was inside.

More bodies had been spotted in the fast-moving currents, which were “even more treacherous” today than yesterday, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said. But the death toll, while expected to grow, was not expected to reach the numbers that the disaster amid bumper-to-bumper, two-lane traffic might have produced.

Fourteen people were still at Hennepin County Medical Center, where most of the victims were taken, with five of them still in critical condition, spokeswoman Kathy Roberts said today.

Crews planned to focus on 13 areas on the upstream side of the collapse, including four vehicles that were partially submerged and had been checked briefly Wednesday or Thursday, he said.

The search efforts were to continue even as authorities reviewed the safety record of the bridge, which had been designated “structurally deficient” as early as 1990.

The eight-lane I-35W bridge, which carried 141,000 vehicles a day, was in the midst of mostly resurfacing repairs when it buckled during the Wednesday evening rush hour.

Dozens of cars plunged into the river, some falling on top of one another. A school bus sat on the angled concrete.

Among the missing is Sadiya Sahal, 23, and her 2-year-old daughter, Hanah Mohamed. Sahal, who is five months pregnant, left home at 5:15 p.m. with the toddler in the back seat. She called her family at 5:30 p.m. saying she was stuck in traffic on the bridge, according to Omar Jamal, a spokesman for the family. That was her last phone call.

“Her husband is destroyed. He’s in shock,” Jamal said.

Officials identified the dead as Sherry Engebretsen, 60, of suburban Shoreview; Julia Blackhawk, 32, of Savage; Patrick Holmes, 36, of Moundsview; and Artemio Trinidad-Mena, 29, of Minneapolis.

Ronald Engebretsen said he and his family were trying to come to grips with his wife’s death. “She’s a great person. She’s a person of great conviction, great integrity, great honesty and great faith in her God,” he said.

Shanna Hanson, a fire captain shown on video searching cars in the water shortly after the collapse, plunged into the water with no gear save a rope around her waist. She downplayed her efforts but described the conditions as extremely hazardous.

“Because the ground was so uneven because of the slabs and debris under there, the water depth kept changing, so that would change things up a bit. The visibility was really bad. It’s the Mississippi and it’s August, so visibility was under a foot,” she told CNN.

“You have the jagged metal and broken glass, and the problem is you can’t see what’s around you and you don’t know what else you’re going to bump into,” she added.

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker said his investigators got two big breaks Thursday with a surveillance video showing the collapse and a computer program that would analyze how the bridge failed. Those two things would speed their work and allow them to do a smaller reconstruction of part of the bridge span, rather than the whole thing.

Despite the powerful images of devastation from the collapse, some believed the design of the bridge reduced the death toll.

Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said the bridge’s underlying arch truss stopped heavy pieces of steel from falling onto vehicles when the cars plunged into the water.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty responded Thursday by ordering an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs, but said the state was never warned that the I-35W bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired.

“There was a view that the bridge was ultimately and eventually going to need to be replaced,” he said.

More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient like the I-35W bridge, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.

“I think anybody who looks at the national picture, the national statistics and says that we don’t have a problem would be naive or misleading the situation,” Pawlenty said. “We have a major problem.”

Authorities cautioned not to read too much into the “structurally deficient” tag. The designation means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement. It wasn’t a candidate for replacement until 2020.

The collapsed bridge is one of 1,160 bridges in that category, which amounts to 8 percent of bridges in the state. Nationally, about 12 percent of bridges are labeled “structurally deficient.”

During the 1990s, inspections found fatigue cracks and corrosion in the steel around the bridge’s joints. Those problems were repaired. Starting in 1993, the bridge was inspected annually instead of every other year.

State bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said the bearings could not have been repaired without jacking up the entire deck of the bridge. Because the bearings were not sliding, inspectors concluded the corrosion was not a major issue.

After a study raised concern about cracks, the state was given two alternatives: Add steel plates to reinforce critical parts or conduct a thorough inspection of certain areas to see if there were additional cracks. They chose the inspection route, beginning that examination in May.

“We thought we had done all we could,” Dorgan told reporters near the mangled remains of the span. “Obviously something went terribly wrong.”

The collapsed bridge’s last full inspection was completed June 15, 2006. The report shows previous inspectors’ notations of fatigue cracks in the spans approaching the river, including one four feet long that was reinforced with bolted plates.

Although concern was raised about cracks, some experts theorized it’s no coincidence the collapse happened when workers and heavy equipment were on the bridge. The construction work involved resurfacing and maintenance on guardrails and lights, among other repairs.

“I would be stunned if this didn’t have something to do with the construction project,” said David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University. “I think it’s a major factor.”

Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein, Brian Bakst, Ryan Foley, Jon Krawczynski and Martiga Lohn contributed to this report.

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