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Bridge disaster in Minneapolis

Deaths, chaos as vehicles plunge

Crushed vehicles burned in the wreckage. Crushed vehicles burned in the wreckage. (Jacob Reynolds/Associated Press)

MINNEAPOLIS -- An eight-lane highway bridge clogged with rush-hour traffic buckled and collapsed into the Mississippi River in central Minneapolis yesterday, pitching numerous vehicles into the roiling water below. At least nine 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.

"This is a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota," said Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican. "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. Witnesses described a lamppost-shaking rumble at 6:05 p.m. central time as the concrete-and-steel structure rippled from south to north, 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 cliff-like edge of the roadway. Several of the vehicles caught fire, and one tractor-trailer was sheared in half.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack said that 60 people were taken to area hospitals for treatment and that the death toll could rise. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that 20 people were missing.

Rescuers called off the search; nightfall made it too dangerous to search the water, which was filled with chunks of the mangled bridge and at least 50 vehicles.

"We think there are several more vehicles in the river we can't see yet," Clack said, adding that the likelihood of finding survivors was slim.

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 saw a plume of dust rising above the tree line, she said.

"There was twisted metal everywhere," said Munro, 40, of Minneapolis.

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."

Homeland Security officials said they have ruled out terrorism as a cause. Pawlenty said the bridge had been inspected in 2005 and 2006 and "no immediate or noted structural problems" were found. He said the structure had been undergoing cosmetic repairs, including resurfacing and guardrail and lighting replacement.

Reports issued by the Minnesota Department of Transportation over the past decade have detailed problems with the bridge. In 1997, the department cited problems with the approach spans on both ends of the bridge, 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 that 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 newspaper 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, said Mark Rosenker, chairman. About 200,000 vehicles a day pass over the bridge, which connects two sides of Minneapolis, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. It is located 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 how the accident occurred. "We are calling in bridge experts from across the country."

Emergency service officials from as far as 40 miles away arrived on the scene. Racing against an approaching lightning storm and growing darkness, city officials dispatched boats and 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, the roadbed's bottom edges on the wide riverbank.

About 30 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 local hospitals and shelters. Courtney Johnson of the American Red Cross said most of the children appeared not to be seriously hurt.