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Driver saw 'something in front of me disappear and then . . . we fell'

MINNEAPOLIS -- Some dropped with the collapsing bridge into the waters of the Mississippi River and swam to safety, while others leaped from their cars over yawning gaps of asphalt to solid ground.

Survivors and witnesses cried and hugged one another as rescue crews tried to save who they could and gauge the scope of the catastrophic collapse of the eight-lane bridge. At least seven people died.

Dennis Winegar of Houston said he felt the Interstate 35W bridge start to shake. "I slammed on my brakes and saw something in front of me disappear and then my car pointed straight down, and we fell."

He estimated they dropped about 50 feet.

"I just reacted, put my foot on the brakes and started praying we didn't flip over," he said. "When I got out . . . there was a car lodged underneath me and one right next to me."

His wife, Jamie, said everyone around them got out of their cars and tried to help each other off the bridge. "There were a bunch of people right around there helping everyone. Angels is what I call them."

Peter Siddons was on his commute home north when he heard "crunching" and saw the bridge start to roll and then crumple, he told the Star Tribune. "It kept collapsing, down, down, down until it got to me."

His car dropped with the bridge but stopped when his car rolled into the car in front of him. He got out of his car, jumped over the crevice between the highway lanes and crawled up the steeply tilted section of broken bridge and jumped to the ground.

"I thought I was dead," said the senior vice president at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. "Honestly, I honestly did. I thought it was over."

Caught on the span was a school bus filled with children on their way back from a day of swimming, said Ryan Watkins, one of the children. He said the bus bounced twice and stopped, its front door wedged against a concrete traffic barrier. They fled through the rear door.

A truck driver from Georgia, Charles Flowers, saw the collapse from banks of the river. Instantly, the water was filled with floating cars and people -- injured, dazed -- asking for help, he said.

He and several others ran down the riverbank, and he pulled a woman from the water. He said he thought she did not survive. "I never thought I'd see anything like this," he told the newspaper.

Catherine Yankelevich survived the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif., and was on the I-35W bridge when it began to shake. "Cars started flying and I was falling and saw the water," she said. Her car wound up in the river so she climbed out the driver's side window and swam to shore uninjured.

"It seemed like a movie," said Yankelevich. "It was pretty scary."