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Originally published August 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 3, 2007 at 10:02 PM

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Fears of death toll rising eased

Fears that the death toll would rise dramatically as workers searched through the wreckage of a bridge that plunged into the Mississippi...

The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Fears that the death toll would rise dramatically as workers searched through the wreckage of a bridge that plunged into the Mississippi River eased Friday when authorities said the number of missing people could be as few as eight.

As many as 30 had been feared missing because the bridge fell during bumper-to-bumper traffic.

"We were surprised that we didn't have more people seriously injured and killed," Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack told The Associated Press. "I think it was something of a miracle."

At least five people were killed and about 100 injured when the Interstate 35W bridge plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River on Wednesday afternoon. At least five were in critical condition, hospital officials said.

The crash immediately launched questions about the safety record of the bridge, which had been declared "structurally deficient" as early as 1990.

Investigators reviewed video and were creating computer models of what could have caused the bridge to fail. They also planned to examine and reconstruct, parts of the bridge that could give them the most clues.

Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators were particularly interested in learning why a part of the bridge's southern span shifted as it collapsed. That was the only part of the bridge that shifted, and it could help pinpoint the cause.

"I don't want to leave the impression that we have the answer. What we have is a step forward," Rosenker said at an afternoon news conference. "We will be making a very thorough examination of that southern end."

Firefighters pulled the fifth victim, the driver of a tractor-trailer that was engulfed in flames in the collapse, from the wreckage late Thursday. Video of the burning rig, nose down in the crevasse between two broken concrete slabs, was among the most compelling images shown in the immediate aftermath of the collapse. The driver was identified by the county medical examiner as Paul Eickstadt, 51, of Moundsview.

One person who had been feared missing turned up safe at work, officials said. Officials said early in the day that only eight people were missing, but Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek cautioned at an afternoon news conference that the toll could still rise because the number of victims underwater was still unknown.

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

Search conditions were improving after the Army Corps of Engineers lowered the water by about two feet, officials said. But visibility continued to be a problem, and divers couldn't see more than 6 inches in front of them, Hennepin County Capt. Bill Chandler said.

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Divers located five vehicles Friday morning, but no additional victims had been found. The afternoon search was turning to the west bank of the river, where five targets — possible vehicles — had been identified with sonar. Divers were wearing rubber gloves and trying to determine license plate numbers with their hands.

"There are windows down in some of the cars which allows people to get out. We are going to go under the assumption that there are still people there no matter what," Chandler said.

First lady Laura Bush visited the scene Friday morning. During a tour of the disaster site, she praised the rescuers who rushed to the bridge in the chaos after the collapse. At a local American Red Cross chapter, she shook hands with Jay Reeves, the group's public safety coordinator, who helped evacuate children from a school bus.

"She said she appreciated the service that I provided. She believes it was lucky someone like me was right there on the spot," Reeves, 39, said, his voice breaking. "You'll have to excuse me, but that was pretty cool."

President Bush was scheduled to visit Saturday for a recovery briefing.

Among those still missing is Sadiya Sahal, 23, and her 2-year-old daughter, Hanah Mohamed. Sahal, who is five months pregnant, left home at 5:15 p.m. with the toddler in the back seat. She called her family at 5:30 p.m. saying she was stuck in traffic on the bridge, according to Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, where the family came for help. That was her last phone call.

"Her husband is destroyed. He's in shock," Jamal said.

Officials identified the dead as Sherry Engebretsen, 60, of suburban Shoreview; Julia Blackhawk, 32, of Savage; Patrick Holmes, 36, of Moundsview; and Artemio Trinidad-Mena, 29, of Minneapolis.

Despite the powerful images of devastation from the collapse, some believed the design of the bridge reduced the death toll.

Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said the bridge's underlying arch truss stopped heavy pieces of steel from falling onto vehicles when the cars plunged into the water.

More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient like the I-35W bridge, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs, but said the state was never warned that the I-35W bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired. A firm was hired to review the state's inspection processes.

Authorities said the "structurally deficient" tag simply means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement. It wasn't a candidate for replacement until 2020.

During the 1990s, inspections found fatigue cracks and corrosion in the steel around the bridge's joints. Those problems were repaired. Starting in 1993, the bridge was inspected annually instead of every other year.

After a study raised concern about cracks, the state was given two alternatives: Add steel plates to reinforce critical parts or conduct a thorough inspection of certain areas to see if there were additional cracks. They chose the inspection route, beginning that examination in May.

Although concern was raised about cracks, some experts theorized it's no coincidence the collapse happened when workers and heavy equipment were on the bridge. The construction work involved resurfacing and maintenance on guardrails and lights, among other repairs.

"I would be stunned if this didn't have something to do with the construction project," said David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University. "I think it's a major factor."

The collapsed bridge is one of 1,160 bridges considered structurally deficient in Minnesota, which amounts to 8 percent of bridges in the state. Nationally, about 12 percent of bridges are labeled "structurally deficient." States on Friday began inspecting bridges with similar designs.

The White House said the president supports "necessary funding" to rebuild the bridge. The city is scheduled to host the Republican National Convention next year. The Minnesota congressional delegation has sought $250 million, for the effort, and leaders said they hoped to get a bill passed before Congress leaves for its monthlong summer break Friday.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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