Minn. bridge collapse search suspended
By Henry C. Jaconson and Mark Scolforo
Vicki Smith and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2007, The Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS — Divers looking in the Mississippi River for victims of a bridge collapse were forced to suspend their search Saturday, hampered by debris shifting in the swirling, murky current.
Families of the missing waited a third agonizing day for word that any bodies were found. It was not clear whether divers would return to the water later in the day.
"The dive itself has been suspended due to moving debris," said Mary Jerde, a spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.
The number of dead stood at five as new details emerged about the eight or more victims believed trapped in the wreckage.
The missing include Christine Sacorafas, 45, a recent transplant to Minnesota who was on her way to teach a Greek folk dancing class; Greg Jolstad, 45, a construction worker who was operating a skid loader on the bridge; Peter Hausmann, 47, a former missionary heading to pick up a friend; and Somali immigrant Sadiya Sahal, 23, a pregnant nursing student traveling with her 2-year-old daughter, Hanah.
Families of the missing gathered in a Red Cross center that was moved Saturday to a classroom at Augsburg College. With the search so far yielding no victims, the families have grown more distressed but have also turned to one another for comfort, sharing photographs and stories about their relatives.
"They've just been waiting for word, any kind of word," Red Cross spokesman Ted Canova said.
Of the roughly 100 injured, 24 remained hospitalized Saturday, five in critical condition.
President Bush took an aerial tour of the damage Saturday morning, then went to the scene to speak with a construction worker who helped rescue children. After walking around the site, Bush went to a makeshift command post where he spoke with the families of two victims, as well as first responders and rescue workers.
Bush praised the divers and all those who rushed to help victims of Wednesday's collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, a major Twin Cities artery.
"There's a lot of people here in the Twin Cities whose first instinct was to save the lives of people who were hurting," Bush said.
The president pledged to help cut the red tape to reconstruct the bridge, but could not promise how quickly the project would take place. The eight-lane bridge, which came tumbling down in just seconds during evening rush hour, once carried 141,000 vehicles a day.
A memorial service with songs and prayers for the victims was set for 7 p.m. Sunday. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak encouraged Minnesotans to attend and honor the families and first responders.
The Minnesota Orchestra and other musicians were scheduled to perform, and any money raised will be distributed to victims' families.
Minnesota's legislative leaders began putting lawmakers on standby for a post-Labor Day special session. Pawlenty, in a huge political concession, announced he is willing to reverse his longstanding opposition to a state gas tax increase.
Pawlenty said that he hopes lawmakers will agree to his ideas for funding road and bridge repairs but that details had not yet been worked out. The state's gas tax has stood at 20 cents per gallon since 1988.
State transportation officials said Saturday that they have hired the New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm as the consultant to review MnDOT's bridge inspection protocols. Parsons will also assist in speedier inspections of Minnesota bridges.
The state also said it would begin seeking contractors interested in joining the effort to rebuild the bridge.
In the investigation of the collapse, attention has turned to determining why part of the bridge shifted as it collapsed. It was the only part that shifted, and it could help pinpoint the cause.
The bridge was deemed "structurally deficient" by the federal government as far back as 1990, and inspections over the years had raised alarm, with findings of rust-eaten steel beams, missing bolts and cracks in the welding that held load-bearing parts together.
A consulting company noted that one possible fix -- steel plating of fractures -- carried a "relatively high cost," according to a January report. Transportation officials deny that cost pressures swayed their decisions.
State bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said he made the final decision to monitor the bridge's weaknesses through regular inspections but not take more drastic measures, such as bolstering the trusses with steel plates, which he feared could have worsened the structural problems. His staff and consultants ultimately backed that call, he said.
Repairs over the years included bolting and welding on braces, shooting concrete into cracks and patching over crumbling concrete.