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Death Toll May Rise in Bridge Collapse

August 02, 2007

Alyssa Rocklitz never showed up for work. Kirk Foster and his girlfriend Krystle Webb are nowhere to be found.

Their friends and family members were among more than 20 relatives gathered in a hotel ballroom early Thursday, waiting for word after an interstate bridge collapsed, killing at least seven and sending dozens of cars plummeting more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River.

"I've never wanted to see my brother so much in my life," said Kristi Foster, who went to the center looking for Kirk. She hadn't had contact with her brother or his girlfriend since the previous night, and his cell phone was shut off.

The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery that carries more than 100,000 vehicles a day, was in the midst of being repaired and two lanes in each direction were closed when the bridge buckled Wednesday while jammed with rush-hour traffic.

Officials said seven people died, more than 60 were injured, and as many as 50 vehicles were in the river. The collapse did not appear to be terrorism-related.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack said the death toll could rise. "We think there are several more vehicles in the river we can't see yet," he said Wednesday.

By 1 a.m. Thursday, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said all search efforts had been called off for the night and that officials didn't expect to find any more survivors. "It's dark, it's not safe with the currents in the water and the concrete and rebar," he said.

Search lights on the banks illuminated a horrific scene of twisted wreckage, thick concrete slabs, twisted steel and crushed cars tossed about haphazardly. A line of ambulances idled along the adjacent bridge.

"Obviously, this is a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty said the 40-year-old bridge was inspected by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2005 and 2006 and that no immediate structural problems were noted. "There were some minor things that needed attention," he said.

Road crews were working on the bridge's joints, guardrails and lights this week, with lane closures overnight on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Aerial shots from local television stations showed the entire span of Interstate 35W had crumpled into the river below. Some injured people were carried up the riverbank, while emergency workers tended to others on the ground and some jumped into the water to look for survivors. Fire and black smoke rose from the wreckage.

A school bus had just crossed the midsection of the bridge before it collapsed. The bus did not go into the water, and broadcast reports indicated the children on the bus exited out the back door.

Christine Swift's 10-year-old daughter, Kaleigh, was on the bus, returning from a field trip to Bunker Hills in Blaine. She said her daughter called her about 6:10 p.m.

"She was screaming, 'The bridge collapsed,'" Swift said. All 60 kids got off the bus safely, but about 10 of the children were injured, officials said.

The collapsed bridge stood just blocks from the heart of Minneapolis, near tourist attractions like the new Guthrie Theater and the Stone Arch Bridge. As the steamy night progressed, massive crowds circulated in the area on foot or bicycle, some of them wearing Twins T-shirts and caps after departing early from Wednesday night's game at the nearby Metrodome.

Thursday's game between the Twins and Kansas City Royals was called off, but the Twins decided to go ahead with Wednesday's rather than sending about 25,000 fans back out onto the congested highways. Inside the stadium, there was a moment of silence to honor victims.

The river's depth at the bridge was not immediately available, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a channel depth of at least 9 feet in the Upper Mississippi from Minneapolis southward to allow for barge and other river traffic.

There were 18 construction workers on the bridge at the time of the collapse, said Tom Sloan, head of the bridge division for Progressive Contractors Inc., in St. Michael. One of the workers was unaccounted for.

Sloan said his crew was placing concrete finish on the bridge for what he called a routine resurfacing project. "It was the final item on this phase of the project. Suddenly the bridge gave way," he said.

Sloan said his workers described a horrific scene. "They said they basically rode the bridge down to the water. They were sliding into cars and cars were sliding into them," he said.

Several hundred people climbed to the top of the hill in nearby Gold Medal Park, which offered a partially blocked view of the collapsed bridge. A few cried, while others stood in circles and prayed.

The steel-arched bridge, which was built in 1967, rose about 64 feet above the river and stretched about 1,900 feet across the water. The bridge was built with a single 458-foot-long steel arch to avoid putting any piers in the water that might interfere with river navigation.

Ian Anderson, a sound engineer at the Fine Line Music Cafe, went to the hotel looking for Rocklitz, a co-worker who was supposed to start her shift around 6 or 7 p.m. Wednesday.

"I can't remember a single instance in all the time that I've known her when I've called and not gotten straight through," Anderson said. "Something is definitely wrong, and I hope to God it's not this instance."


Associated Press writers Brian Bakst and Patrick Condon in Minneapolis, and Martiga Lohn in St. Paul contributed to this report.


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Last update: 08/02/2007

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