Difficult Conditions Hamper River Search

Sue Ryan of Maple Grove, Minn., reacts after seeing the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis for the first time.
Sue Ryan of Maple Grove, Minn., reacts after seeing the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis for the first time. (Associated Press)
By Philip Rucker and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 4, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 3 -- Feeling their way forward in murky water with barely six inches of visibility, teams of divers Friday located more vehicles that plunged into the Mississippi River in Wednesday evening's collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, but they failed to find any bodies inside, authorities said.

As the grim, treacherous recovery effort continued for a second full day, the National Transportation Safety Board reported a curious finding from its nascent investigation: The southern part of the bridge collapsed in a different way from the rest of the span, shifting about 50 feet to the east as it fell, while the rest of the bridge collapsed in place. Officials declined to speculate on what the anomaly meant, saying it needs to be thoroughly studied.

Conducting their search in conditions they described as better than before -- but still difficult and hazardous -- divers found five submerged vehicles Friday morning just upstream from the collapsed bridge, Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek told reporters. The divers searched four of the vehicles, finding no victims in any of them, but they were unable to examine a car that was sitting on the bottom of the river, crushed underneath another vehicle, he said.

The confirmed death toll from the disaster stood at five Friday, including a man whose body was pulled from a burned truck on the collapsed bridge late Thursday. Three other victims died at the disaster site Wednesday when the eight-lane bridge suddenly collapsed during the evening rush hour, falling 64 feet into the river. One victim who was pulled from the wreckage died of his injuries shortly afterward in hospital, Medical Examiner Andrew Baker said.

The number of people missing in the disaster remained uncertain Friday. Police initially gave an estimate of 20 to 30. By Friday morning, some officials said they could confirm only eight people missing. But at an afternoon news briefing, Stanek declined to give a figure.

"We don't know," he said. "It's a terrible mess, quite honestly. We don't know how many cars were on the bridge when it collapsed, and we don't know how many victims were in the cars."

He said one woman who previously had been listed as unaccounted for was found at work Friday morning. Her car had been recovered at the disaster scene, but her whereabouts were unknown until detectives located her at her job.

Minneapolis Police Chief Timothy Dolan later would say only that "several people" were missing. "It could be more than eight; it could be less than eight," he told reporters. He estimated that 50 to 60 vehicles were on the bridge when it collapsed, about 30 of which are visible on the fallen slabs of concrete or in the wreckage.

Slowing the recovery operation have been treacherous river conditions, as well as the hazards of trying to extract bodies from vehicles amid the surface wreckage. Swimming practically blind in the muddy river, divers must navigate perilous debris, including twisted steel girders, tangled cables and jagged chunks of concrete bristling with iron reinforcement bars.

Visibility remains "terrible," said Capt. Bill Chandler, commander of the 20 divers at the site. "They can see maybe six inches at best." Once they locate a vehicle, the divers report back on the license plate number and then check inside, reaching in and feeling for bodies, he said.

"It's all Braille diving -- zero-visibility diving," said Capt. Ken Schilling, a coordinator for the recovery operation. "It's all about the feel."

So far, divers have located 12 vehicles in the water, Stanek said.

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