River foils Minn. searchers
By Dave Orrick & Paul Tosto
Shannon Prather, Chris Niskanen, Alex Friedrich, Mara H. Gottfried, Emily Gurnon and Tim Nelson contributed to this report.
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Copyright 2007 St. Paul Pioneer Press
All Rights Reserved
ST. Paul, Minn. — Thousands of tons of concrete and steel that once delivered an easy drive across the Mississippi River delivered only misery Thursday as searchers confronted the remains of the Interstate 35W bridge.
It was a day of recovery where nothing could be recovered.
Sheriff's divers, ready at first light, were kept on shore by engineers worried the broken Minneapolis span was dangerously unstable. When the divers did get in the water, the wreckage created its own dangers - twisted rebar and rubble that made it nearly impossible to read license plates, let alone reach the trapped cars.
Frustrated, officials could do little more than review the grim statistics: four dead, eight unaccounted for, 83 injured. At least a dozen vehicles were visible in the water, and an unknown number were totally submerged. Earlier in the day, authorities said as many as 30 people were missing, but by Thursday evening, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek issued the lower number.
A National Transportation Safety Board "go team" will begin examining the wreckage, retrieving and eventually assembling pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. Much of that effort, though, will need to wait until experts find ways to work the site safely. That was especially clear at the river's edge, which, for now, is blocked off like a crime scene.
About 15 divers, only two in the water at a time, worked the site late Thursday morning after authorities used sonar and global positioning to map out the underwater rubble. But they were out of the water after only about an hour, unable to recover any bodies. The debris had created its own dangerous currents and whirlpools. Police estimated the river depth at 7 to 8 feet at the collapse site with a visibility of 1 to 3 feet.
Authorities worked to regulate the flow of water through the nearby Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, but the currents are strong and unpredictable because of the debris in the water, Stanek said. Pieces of debris, moreover, were continuing to fall from the crumpled structure above.
"The most difficult thing to understand is the mass of debris and mass of rebar," said inspector Jeff Storms of the Hennepin County sheriff's office. "It can get stuck in any part of your equipment."
Asked if the divers can detach themselves from the emotion of the situation, Storms said, "It does become difficult sometimes. There's lots of families, a lot of people, and they'd like to know."
Sgt. Tony Waldo, who supervises the Ramsey County sheriff's office water patrol and dive team, said he had about 10 divers and six dive tenders helping with Thursday's recovery. Waldo wasn't diving Thursday, but he has dived in the Mississippi River in the past.
"It's very dark. You have to calm yourself down," he said. "A lot of times, there is no light, or if there's surface light, it doesn't go down very far. You have to pretty much close your eyes and let your senses take over."
Stanek said the search could go on for days.
"Whatever it takes to process the scene," said the sheriff, who asked the public to stay away.
By day's end, authorities could count some small progress. Divers were able to return to the water on and off during the afternoon, scoping out a site downstream from the collapse where they found debris, including one car associated with the accident - but no victims.
Asked about the frustration of not being able to aid all those trapped in the wreckage and the water on Wednesday, Stanek said he couldn't put it into words: "There was a lot of chaos, a lot of people who needed help. We had agencies from all over the state. We did the best we could."