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Originally published August 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 7, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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7 previously hidden vehicles found amid bridge wreckage

As U.S. Navy divers combed the gnarled wreckage of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge Monday, federal agents used a robotic submarine...

Chicago Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — As U.S. Navy divers combed the gnarled wreckage of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge Monday, federal agents used a robotic submarine, a helicopter equipped with cameras and detailed images being captured from scanners onshore to search for the missing.

But by late afternoon — five days after the bridge collapsed — the search still yielded no word on the fate of the eight people believed to have perished. Seven previously hidden vehicles were found in the Mississippi River and amid the rubble Monday, authorities said.

Officials said occupants of six of the vehicles were accounted for either among the five people confirmed dead or among the dozens who made it out alive. But no one was found in a seventh vehicle, which police said belonged to one of the missing.

"There [are] not easy ways to talk to the families about this stuff," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

A strategy developed over the weekend has crews from a variety of agencies clearing debris and dumping it onto barges. The debris will then be reassembled at a location downriver so authorities can investigate what may have caused the bridge to come apart.

Authorities hope that as the debris thins, the site will yield clues as to the fate of the lost. Searchers are also stationed downriver looking for bodies.

"I expect that things will start to move along pretty soon," Stanek said. "Bank to bank, our goal is to recover victims. ... There's a lot of resources being deployed here to get this mission done."

One of the resources is the Minneapolis Violent Criminal Apprehension Team — detectives whose usual work is to hunt fugitives. Instead, their skills were diverted beginning last Wednesday to determining whether any of the missing survived the collapse but did not report to authorities.

With authorities initially fearing a death toll as high as 30 to 40, the unit's work was critical in helping to lower death estimates.

Detectives used emergency subpoenas for cellphone records in search of the clues and updated families on each new discovery.

As divers search the wreckage and locate or identify a vehicle, the team's work also involves collating each agency's investigative information — makes and models of cars, license-plate numbers, and recovered items from vehicles — into a database.

"We're pulling out every tool we have," said Minneapolis police Capt. Mike Martin, who is coordinating the investigative efforts.

Meanwhile, federal investigators said Monday they are focusing on whether a construction crew working on a bridge-resurfacing project could have caused vibrations that destabilized the bridge.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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