Interstate Bridge Collapses Into Mississippi River in Minneapolis

By Joe Kimball and Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 2, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 1 -- An eight-lane highway bridge clogged with rush-hour traffic buckled and collapsed into the Mississippi River in central Minneapolis on Wednesday evening, pitching numerous vehicles into the roiling water below. At least seven people were killed and dozens were injured, authorities said.

Emergency officials said the toll could rise as rescuers, hampered by burning cars and hunks of broken roadway, scoured the debris-clogged river for survivors. The Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper reported that 20 people were still missing late Wednesday night, and that officials said efforts had switched from rescue to recovery.

"This is a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R). "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. Pawlenty said the structure had been undergoing "cosmetic" repairs, including resurfacing and guardrail and lighting replacement.

Witnesses described a lamppost-shaking rumble at 6:05 p.m. Central time as the concrete-and-steel structure rippled from south to north and 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 clifflike edge of the r oadway. Several of the vehicles caught fire and one tractor-trailer was cut in half.

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

Minneapolis emergency official Don Stickney said some lanes of the 40-year-old bridge were closed for "general maintenance," which may have reduced the number of casualties. Regardless, he said, "this would have been the busiest time of the day."

One witness, Heather Munro, said she heard a sound "like a wrecking ball hitting a concrete building." Turning in the direction of the sound, she said she saw a plume of dust rising above the tree line.

"It looked like complete total structural failure," said Munro, 40, of Minneapolis. "There was twisted metal everywhere."

Gazing down the embankment alongside the river, she spotted an injured man next to two sport-utility vehicles, one on top of the other. The man, his face streaming blood, was struggling to get up, but his right leg was askew as if broken, she said. About 300 feet away, she saw a woman climb out of the sunroof of her red Jeep.

"It was so surreal," Munro said. "She was carrying her purse. She had her arms open in a 'What the heck?' gesture. It was just total bewilderment. She must have been in shock."

Department of Homeland Security officials said they have ruled out terrorism as a cause. Pawlenty said that the bridge had been inspected in 2005 and 2006 and that "no immediate or noted structural problems" were found.

Reports issued by the Minnesota Department of Transportation over the past decade have detailed problems with the bridge. In 1997, the department noted problems with the approach spans on both ends, including "cracks . . . in the cross girder at the end of the approach spans." In a 2001 report, department engineers said that the bridge's deck truss "has not experienced fatigue cracking, but it has many poor fatigue details on the main truss and floor truss system."

But that report concluded that the bridge "should not have any problems with fatigue cracking in the foreseeable future." As a result, they wrote, the department "does not need to prematurely replace this bridge because of fatigue cracking, avoiding the high costs associated with such a large project."

Jay Danz, 45, of St. Paul told the Star Tribune that he was driving to the Minnesota Twins baseball game on a parkway beneath the structure when he heard the bridge "creaking and making all sorts of noise it shouldn't make."

"And then the bridge just started to fall apart," he said.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board traveled to Minneapolis last night to determine why the bridge collapsed, Chairman Mark V. Rosenker said. About 140,000 vehicles a day pass over the bridge, which connects two sides of Minneapolis, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. It is near the city's business district and the University of Minnesota.

"It's obviously a catastrophic collapse," Rosenker said, adding that he had no details about why the accident occurred. "We are calling in bridge experts from across the country."

Emergency service officials from as far away 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.

Broken north and south sections of the bridge stood almost vertical, bordered by twisted green girders, the roadbed's bottom edges resting on the wide riverbank. 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 60 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 hospitals and shelters. Courtney Johnson of the American Red Cross said most of the children appeared not to be seriously hurt.

"It looked like a terrorist attack," Ryan Murphey, 30, of Minneapolis told the Star Tribune. "But everyone there was very calm and organized." Murphey said he helped carry stretchers holding two victims from the east riverbank, including a middle-aged woman with a blood-smeared face.

Emergency vehicles backed up several deep near the broken highway edge, where cars teetered. Traffic had been moving about 20 mph when the bridge's light poles trembled, witnesses said, and a low rumble built into the roar of the collapse.

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. local time, but officials decided to continue the game after a moment of prayer to help prevent more traffic from pouring into the chaotic scene.

Kimball is a special correspondent. Williamson reported from Washington. Staff writers Tim Page in Minneapolis and Del Quentin Wilber and Seth Hamblin in Washington contributed to this report.

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