Minneapolis Bridge, Like Many In U.S., Was 'Structurally Deficient'

MAP: Site of Bridge Collapse
By Philip Rucker, William Branigin and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 3, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 2 -- Divers pressed their search Thursday for victims of a catastrophic bridge collapse as dozens of distraught families awaited word on missing relatives and government officials began trying to determine what caused the 40-year-old span to plummet into the Mississippi River during Wednesday evening's rush hour.

Bridge No. 9340, Minnesota's busiest, had been classified as "structurally deficient" by state bridge inspectors for at least 17 years, state and federal transportation officials said.

But the eight-lane span carrying Interstate 35W across the Mississippi shared that designation with about 77,000 aging bridges nationwide. And annual state inspections for the past three years and two private studies commissioned by Minnesota in recent years -- all reviewed by The Washington Post -- provided no indication that the bridge was in danger of imminent failure.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said that the "structurally deficient" rating "doesn't necessarily mean a bridge is unsafe or in need of replacement. But I think anybody who looks at the national picture . . . and says we don't have a problem would be naive."

At least four people were confirmed dead Wednesday and 79 were reported injured. As bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic crawled over the truss bridge, a nearly 500-foot span crashed into the river about 64 feet below, bringing dozens of vehicles down with it.

Police said the death toll was certain to rise with the recovery of bodies trapped in vehicles under tons of concrete or in the murky river. The recovery effort proceeded slowly, impaired by strong currents, stiff winds and perilous wreckage, including chunks of concrete, mangled steel, and a jumble of cables and electrical wires.

Engineers used a dam just northwest of the bridge to lower the river's water level and slow currents in the disaster zone to improve safety for divers searching for vehicles. But that created suction back toward the dam, creating dangerous conditions that forced officials to temporarily pull divers from the river, Pawlenty said.

"It's a very dangerous situation around there," said Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek. "There's a lot of debris."

Officials suspended search efforts for the day at 6 p.m. Central time.

Federal and local officials said there was no reason to think the collapse was a result of sabotage. Experts differed on whether it could prove related to surface repair work occurring on the deck of the bridge.

Beyond that, said Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, it is "much too early" to make any determination. He said the investigation could take more than a year. Rosenker said investigators will reassemble pieces of the bridge like a "jigsaw puzzle" to try to determine what caused it to fall.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the bridge had been classified as structurally deficient since 1990 because of corrosion in the bearings and steel around the bridge joints, as well as fatigue cracks in approach spans. Those problems were not considered urgent, however, and the state had not planned to replace or substantially repair the bridge until about 2020, transportation officials said.

Although the Federal Highway Administration requires states to inspect all bridges that are 20 feet or longer at least every two years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation inspects many of its bridges every year, depending on their age, traffic volume and design. The I-35W bridge, which handled an average of 141,000 vehicles per day, had been inspected annually since 1993, state officials said.

The most recent state inspection, in June 2006, as well as those from the previous two years, gave the bridge an overall "sufficiency rating" of 50 out of 120 points, a copy of the report shows.

"Fifty is a bridge that needs some TLC, [but] there are a lot of bridges that are lower," said David Schulz, director of Northwestern University's Infrastructure Technology Institute and a leader of a consortium of bridge inspection and maintenance engineers in the Midwest.

To be classified as structurally deficient, a bridge must be rated four or lower on a nine-point scale in at least one of four major categories. In the 2006 report, the I-35W span earned a four for its superstructure, the frame that supports the bridge deck, while the three other aspects received higher scores.

The 2006 report details an array of defects, including cracks at several points in the concrete slab, rusty bearings in the abutments and "fatigue cracks" in the span's approach. A report completed last year for the state by a private consultant, URS, evaluated the possibility that the bridge could suffer critical fatigue damage and concluded that the likelihood was "very remote."

Minneapolis Police Chief Timothy Dolan said that in addition to the four fatalities confirmed by the local medical examiner's office, several people are known to have died trapped in their vehicles and that others are believed to have drowned. He said an estimated 20 to 30 people remain unaccounted for.

Rescue workers reached several trapped people Wednesday evening but were not immediately able to extricate them, in part because of the dangerous condition of the wreckage, Dolan said. He described emotional scenes in which severely injured victims conveyed their last goodbyes to their families as medical workers tried in vain to help them.

Raul Ramos, a Minneapolis firefighter who responded to the scene a few minutes after the collapse, said, "It was surreal, just concrete and cars, mangled steel." Wearing scuba gear, Ramos said he waded into the water, thick with oil and grease, and dived to a submerged car to cut the seat belt from a woman in the driver's seat.

The woman still had a pulse and was taken to a triage area. Ramos returned to the water. "We were lucky; the current was not as strong as it could have been," he said.

Minneapolis firefighter Tim Dziedzic said he was in one of the first emergency vehicles to arrive at the scene. "One thing they teach you in rookie school, 'You risk nothing to save nothing; you risk a lot to save a lot,' " he said. "Last night we risked everything."

Authorities subsequently called off efforts to rescue survivors and switched to recovery operations aimed at finding bodies.

One of the dead, Patrick Holmes, 36, of Mounds View, Minn., was a father of two who worked as a research therapist at Northwestern Health Sciences University. "Patrick was just coming home from his everyday route," said his father, Mark Holmes of St. Paul. "We all became quite worried and then frantic when the bridge went down and we hadn't heard from him."

Early Thursday morning, the family was notified that Holmes's body had been recovered.

At the Holiday Inn Metrodome a couple of blocks from the bridge, families of the missing gathered in a ballroom to receive information and counseling. Among the more than 60 people who began showing up Wednesday night was Blanca Montoya, who was looking for her father, Ramiro Montoya, 46, of Minneapolis.

"I think my dad was on the bridge," she said. "He was driving that way from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Center to see my mother." No one could help her.

"I think we're still numb," said Diane Poshek, 68, a Salvation Army volunteer who handed out food, water and juice to family members at the hotel Thursday. She described scenes of "unbelievable sadness" in the ballroom.

In an interview after speaking with relatives of the missing, Pawlenty said he found them "full of pain and grief and concern." He added: "You see it in their eyes and bodies. It's gut-wrenching and difficult."

Responding to criticism about the slow recovery effort, the governor said: "The problem, candidly, is the conditions are rough." He said officials do not want to risk losing rescue workers.

Hundreds of people flocked to the area to catch a glimpse of the fallen bridge. Mary Dargay, 52, a nurse from a Minneapolis suburb, said she commutes daily on a road that runs under the structure.

"I just wanted to come and think about the people who died . . . because it's kind of personal," she said as she gazed upon the wreckage from a nearby overpass. "It's just really sad about how fragile life is."

President Bush said he discussed the collapse with his Cabinet on Thursday morning, and he pledged federal help in rebuilding the bridge. "We in the federal government must respond -- and respond robustly -- to help the people there not only recover but make sure that lifeline of activity . . . gets rebuilt as quickly as possible," he told reporters in the White House Rose Garden.

Federal officials later urged states to immediately inspect all similar bridges. The federal government offered an initial $5 million to help Minneapolis divert traffic, and lawmakers said they would seek to tap $100 million in federal money that is available for rebuilding.

Academic bridge engineers differed with state officials on whether the surface construction work could have contributed to the bridge's failure. Schulz, the Northwestern professor, said his "strong suspicion" is that NTSB investigators ultimately will discover that the construction work was involved. "They unhooked something, or disconnected something" that affected the bridge's capacity to withstand traffic, or the closing of some lanes led to "eccentric loading," he said.

Jerome F. Hajjar, a professor of structural engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the removal of parts of the bridge deck for repairs could have placed unusual stress on the steel supports. Or, he said, "it maybe is just some bad luck," such as a devastating crack that developed since the last inspection. "Engineers are rightly a little baffled why this came down," he said.

Schulz added: "American bridges just don't fall into rivers at 5 o'clock in the afternoon."

Branigin and Goldstein reported from Washington. Staff writers Anne Hull, Debbi Wilgoren, Del Quentin Wilber and Rachel Dry in Washington contributed to this report.

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