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Recovery Efforts Continue After Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

August 2, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: That collapse of a bridge over the Mississippi River, special NewsHour correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro begins our coverage.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, NewsHour Correspondent: The rescue mission shifted to recovery this morning, 12 hours after the collapse. Cars clung to the broken concrete on what was left of the I-35 bridge, one of Minneapolis’ major arteries crossing the Mississippi River.

Tim Dolan is the city’s police chief.

CHIEF TIM DOLAN, Minneapolis Police Department: It is still a tremendously dangerous scene. We have several individuals at that scene that were not recovered. There are some unbelievable testimonials and stories involving a number of those people. And I can’t get into the specifics because we have notifications and so forth to make.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The chief also gave new details about the difficult rescue efforts in the minutes and hours immediately following the collapse.

CHIEF TIM DOLAN: Some of the officers actually had to cross girders, swim part of the piece to get to that central area. It was a very, very difficult scene, very, very chaotic. And it was not just my officers; it was fire, ambulance personnel, medical personnel, so it was an all-out effort.

And when you see that scene, and you see the slabs that are hanging there, you realize just being near those slabs is dangerous, and they were crawling over them, so, like I say, tremendous courage.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It was the height of the evening rush hour, just after 6:00, when the 500-foot span of bridge broke into multiple parts and plunged into the river, taking at least 50 cars with it. The river is between four and 14 feet deep in that section.

COLLAPSE WITNESS: It was terrifying. It was just like something out of a movie. You stand there outside your window, and the bridge is buckling and the cars are sliding into the water.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This footage of the collapse was released by the Army Corps of Engineers this morning. Only four of the bridge’s eight lanes were open due to construction, but the bumper-to-bumper gridlock gave drivers no room to escape.

COLLAPSE WITNESS: I think it fell four times, so we know we fell, I don’t know, 40 feet — we don’t know how far we fell — and then a car, we fell on a car. So we think the car might have been accelerating behind us, and my husband was trying to stop, stop, stop, because we didn’t know what was happening.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: After the collapse, many of the vehicles caught fire.

COLLAPSE WITNESS: All I could think of was, God, this was not the way I wanted to die.

COLLAPSE WITNESS: So me and some other people that had been climbing down the riverbank and stuff like that or getting people out of the water. There’s one car that was sinking, and I know that — nobody got out of that car. You know, me and some other guys — you know, you want to go in, but the car’s sinking. And it’s tragic. It was awful.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This school bus carrying nearly 60 people, most of them children, barely made it across. Jeisy Aguiza was helping chaperone the children.

JEISY AGUIZA, Bus Passenger: I just felt the bus like go down, you know? Because I was about to go to sleep, so then I opened my eyes, and then I see dust.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Everyone inside the bus was able to escape, some with minor injuries.

COLLAPSE WITNESS: Me and about two or three other men were actually taking the kids off of the bridge and actually lifting them. They were screaming, crying. Dust just started coming up everywhere.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It was one of many heroic rescues.

MAYOR R.T. RYBACK, Minneapolis: Thank God this wasn’t worse. And thank also the incredible team of people who responded to this disaster.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Most of the injured in the collapse were taken to or walked to nearby Hennepin County Medical Center. Families of the missing are gathering at a Holiday Inn to wait for news. This woman’s brother is among the missing.

COLLAPSE WITNESS: Well, usually they’re at my house all the time, everyday. It’s just like they disappeared off the face of the Earth.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: On a typical weekday, some 140,000 cars cross the bridge, which spanned nearly a third of the mile. At the time of the accident, several construction workers were resurfacing the 40-year-old structure. All but one have been accounted for.

It was held up by a single steel arch 64 feet above the river to avoid putting any piers in the water that would impede river navigation. The bridge was inspected as recently as last year: In 2005, the Department of Transportation listed it as, quote, “structurally deficient,” with a rating of 50 out of 100, and possibly in need of replacement at a later time.

MARY PETERS, Secretary of Transportation: What that rating of 50 means is that the bridge should be repaired, should perhaps be considered for replacement at some point in the future. It was by no means an indication that this bridge was not safe.

Had that been the case, Mn/DOT, Governor Pawlenty would have shut this bridge down immediately. So none of those ratings indicated that there was any kind of danger here. It simply says we need to schedule this bridge for rehabilitation, and that was in the future program for Mn/DOT.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Governor Tim Pawlenty has ordered immediate inspections for all bridges in the state with similar designs. Federal funding will help that effort.

GOV. TIM PAWLENTY (R), Minnesota: If anybody at Mn/DOT were to come to me and say that we have a bridge that’s imminently dangerous or is imminently in danger, obviously, it would be closed or other actions would be taken.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The NTSB chair, Mark Rosenker, said the investigation won’t be easy.

MARK ROSENKER, Chair, NTSB: Each accident is very unique. Many are extremely complex. Some will take years. In this case, what we’re hoping to be able to do is bring together as many of these parts, put them together, as I said, quite similarly to a jigsaw puzzle. And at that point, when we have all of the parts recovered, I believe it will be somewhere close to a year before we get our final report out.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Since the collapse, there’s been a constant stream of people wanting to see the destruction for themselves.

COLLAPSE WITNESS: I drive on it every day to and from.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Some of the wreckage will be flown to Washington for analysis as the investigation moves forward.

Bridge conditions and inspections

Anthony Ingraffea
Cornell University
The things that the investigators will be looking for are conditions in the joints of the bridges: could be corrosion, could be cracking, could be distortion, things that the common person would imagine could be possibly wrong with the bridge.

JIM LEHRER: And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: In the hours since the collapse, many questions have been asked about the bridge's condition and inspection history and whether there are concerns about other bridges around the country. We get some context on this from Anthony Ingraffea, a professor at Cornell University's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Ithaca, New York; and Dan McNichol, author of "The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System." He's written widely on the nation's bridges and tunnels and joins us from Boston.

Professor Ingraffea, what will the investigators be looking at? What are the kinds of things that go wrong with bridges to make them fall down?

ANTHONY INGRAFFEA, Cornell University: In this case, where we have a steel truss bridge, the things that the investigators will be looking for are conditions in the joints of the bridges: could be corrosion, could be cracking, could be distortion, things that the common person would imagine could be possibly wrong with the bridge. They will try to assemble a timeline of events that might have explained the actual observations from video and all of the still photographs.

RAY SUAREZ: In the case of catastrophic failure like this, is it difficult to piece together the sequence of events that led to such a collapse, because the bridge was destroyed by the failure?

ANTHONY INGRAFFEA: The analogy I would bring to bear here is the failure of TWA 800. That was a very complex failure. Wound up with the structure of that aircraft under the ocean, and yet the NTSB investigation was able to proceed, and ultimately was able to explain with very high probability the actual cause of collapse.

So this particular incident will proceed along the same lines. They will try to recover as much of that bridge as possible in the state it's currently in. They have to be very careful during the recovery operation that they do not further damage sections of the bridge that might hold clues that would put together part of that timeline of clues that they're really looking for.

So, yes, it will be very difficult, but I'm very confident that the NTSB, working with all of the other appropriate officials will be able to solve this problem.

State and federal responsibility

Dan McNichol
Author, "The Roads That Built America"
The interstate system is a federal program, but the infrastructure is owned by each individual state that [...] So it's a mutual effort [...] But the ultimate responsibilities lie with the state, because the state is the owner of the infrastructure.

RAY SUAREZ: Dan McNichol, as Fred de Sam Lazaro reported just a few moments ago, this is a key part of the Twin Cities' transportation grid, but it's also part of the interstate system. And I'm wondering where the responsibility gets divvied up? Is it state, is it federal, a little bit of both?

DAN MCNICHOL, Author, "The Roads That Built America": That's an excellent point. It is a bit of both. The interstate system is a federal program, but the infrastructure is owned by each individual state that the interstate system runs through. So it's a mutual effort. It's a combined effort, a joint venture.

But the ultimate responsibilities lie with the state, because the state is the owner of the infrastructure. And that might be a highway department; that might be a turnpike authority. But it ultimately lies with the state agency.

RAY SUAREZ: So this inspection regimen we've been hearing about, repeated inspections, they went from every two years to every single year, after 1993, those were being carried on by Minnesota itself, and then is there any reporting? Does the federal government find out if there are said to be structural problems with the bridge?

DAN MCNICHOL: Oh, definitely, and that's where the partnership is excellent because the information is shared, decisions are made mutually quite often. And the federal government has enormous resources and can go all over the country, all over the world, really, to find out what other issues might come to bear and what can be done to help in a situation exactly like this.

But the real problem is not enough attention has been paid to inspections. We have a wonderful inspection record on this bridge, but we do know one thing tonight: Something was missed. And the inspectional services are now under the microscope. They need to be looked at a lot more closely.

Bridge rated a four out of nine

Anthony Ingraffea
Cornell University
Things age. Everything we build doesn't last forever. The older these things get, the less reliable are our predictions of their future safety. So inspections have to be happening more frequently.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, in a set of inspections earlier this decade on a scale of one to nine, with nine being excellent, this bridge was rated at a four. What does that mean? What is somebody who drove back and forth to work on a bridge today supposed to take away from that finding?

ANTHONY INGRAFFEA: There are two things that I would recommend that the viewer think about when viewing this failure and thinking about that rating. From the point of view of personal safety, I would not be worried, even with a bridge with a rating of four on a scale of nine. This is still a very, very low probability event.

People who are worried about crossing any bridge being governed by the code of federal regulations in the United States are the same kind of people who think they're going to win the lottery tomorrow by buying one ticket. The odds are much higher that you'd win the lottery than you're being killed crossing a bridge.

From the other point of view, every listener is also probably a voter and a taxpayer. And as was just pointed out by my colleague on the show, perhaps too little attention is being paid to the efforts to inspect and maintain our civil infrastructure, not just bridges, but, for example, the pipeline failure that occurred in Manhattan just a few weeks ago.

Things age. Everything we build doesn't last forever. The older these things get, the less reliable are our predictions of their future safety. So inspections have to be happening more frequently. They have to be done more diligently. And that means higher costs.

So from the point of view of taxpaying and voting, people should be thinking about more money devoted to rehabilitation of our civil infrastructure. But I repeat, from a personal safety point of view, this was a very low probability event. We have hundreds of thousands of bridges in the U.S. There are tens of millions of crossings every day. The probability of your being injured in an accident like this is low, but not zero.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dan McNichol, as was mentioned earlier, this bridge was found to be structurally deficient as early as 1993. Are a lot of bridges in the United States in that similar condition?

DAN MCNICHOL: Sadly so. About a third of the bridges are considered structural deficient. And that's a gray category that probably needs to be tightened. What is structural deficient? It might mean that the bridge needs to be shut down immediately, and it may mean that the bridge is fine for another decade or so, and that's what they thought in this case here.

So it's a very vague term, but we know a lot of our bridges in this country, the wealthiest country in the world, are deficient. And this should never be accepted, and I don't think anybody is saying that it is acceptable, but every time there's been a major bridge calamity in this country's history -- they happen about every 20 years -- and it rewrites the books on how to construct and how to inspect, and usually it comes down to inspections.

These bridges are delivered in remarkable condition. And usually what we find when there's a collapse is that we weren't looking closely enough in the right spots with the right equipment or technology.

Maintaining large bridges

Dan McNichol
Author, "The Roads That Built America"
[The collapse is] a physical and psychological failure, and it needs to be examined extremely closely.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, some of the things that were found by inspectors over the years in this particular case include corrosion in the bearings, corrosion in the steel around the joints, fatigue cracks, and cracks in something called the tab welds. Now, I don't know what tab welds are, but I'm wondering if, when you hear this laundry list, these are the kinds of things that can be fixed with standard, periodic maintenance, or do bridges have to be really shut down and gone over more thoroughly when you start to find problems like this?

ANTHONY INGRAFFEA: The answer is it depends upon the degree of damage, and that's what the rating system is all about. A four rating means that, yes, there is discernible damage, in this case of all of the types that you listed. It then becomes a matter of budget and time and inconvenience.

To shut down a bridge like I-35W for any significant length of time incurs a societal cost that has to be weighed against the risk. The risk, of course, is something that cannot be known with certainty. So this is a probability game that is played with safety, human health, and budget.

All of those kinds of mechanisms of damage, cracking and corrosion, are bound to occur in a bridge 40 years old. That does not mean that they can't -- those kinds of damages can't be repaired and should not be repaired. It just depends upon how much money there is and how much inconvenience the public is willing to tolerate.

RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, Dan McNichol, before we go, the construction of this bridge began in 1964. It opened for business in 1967. Is a lot of the national transportation network from that era dates from around then?

DAN MCNICHOL: It is. The interstate system is 2 percent of our total network, but it handles 25 percent of all of our traffic. A great majority of the bridges were built in that timeframe. And when bridges come to represent our country, our government, it's seen as a failure in government. And that's what's so tragic. It's a physical and psychological failure, and it needs to be examined extremely closely.

RAY SUAREZ: Dan McNichol and Professor Ingraffea, gentlemen, thank you both.


DAN MCNICHOL: Thank you very much.