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Local Officials Describe Bridge Collapse’s Toll on Minneapolis

August 3, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The continuing aftermath of the bridge collapse in Minnesota. NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro begins our coverage.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, NewsHour Correspondent: Recovery efforts continued today in the waters surrounding the grim resting place of the 35W bridge span, amid the unyielding flow of the Mississippi River. The waters, up to 14-feet deep, have been transformed by the tons of steel, concrete and rebar littering the site of the collapse.

Hennepin county Sheriff Rich Stanek outlined the problems facing recovery dive teams this morning.

RICK STANEK, Sheriff, Hennepin County: You’ve got the current. You’ve got the debris. It creates, as we talked about yesterday, those manmade eddies, or whirlpools. You’ve got water coming both through here, you’ve got water coming through the bridge. The divers will be taking extreme caution; we will be slow and methodical during our search operations today.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Despite the danger, the sheriff’s office dive master, Captain Bill Chandler, said this afternoon that the river’s level had been lowered and that the recovery operation was proceeding in textbook fashion.

CAPT. BILL CHANDLER, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department: We have very good, sophisticated side-scan sonar that has helped us very well to identify objects, of those target objects, when we go in, so we’ve got a good spot to look. Now, the divers pretty much use a Braille method, as we call it. You’re feeling through the muck to try to find it.

We have underwater communications so the divers are talking back and forth to the surface just like you’re on a phone line. And they can talk to each other. We put one diver down at a time, with two divers backing them up. If they get in trouble, they can go rescue them. So then we direct them by watching, actually, their air bubbles on the surface or with the sonar, if it’s running, so we can direct them into the object.

We cannot run the sonar while they’re in the water, so we’re going strictly off the locations we’ve put the cars to and then working the bubbles, but they’ve got to feel their way in, find the object. They have to get up pretty much face-to-face to the license plate. They call that out to us, and then they go around the car and then in the car.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The recovery operations have so far found no victims in the water today. Today officials said the number of missing — once thought to be as many as 30 — has been reduced to eight. The casualty toll now stands at five confirmed dead and just over 100 injured.

Among the dead: 36-year-old Patrick Holmes, the married father of two young children; 60-year-old Sherry Engebretsen; and 29-year-old Artemio Trinidad-Mena.

Minnesota’s Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, and his wife hosted First Lady Laura Bush at the site today. The governor later spoke to reporters and promised a thorough state and federal investigation. The bridge had been deemed “structurally deficient” in recent inspections. Nevertheless…

GOV. TIM PAWLENTY (R), Minnesota: At no point did anybody say, “Close the bridge or replace it immediately.” The bridge was actually declared fit for service. And what led up to those decisions and that characterizations in light of this tragedy is now going to have to be critically reviewed.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Inspections of four nearly identical steel truss bridges in Minnesota will be completed by next week. Pawlenty also said that this bridge, Minnesota’s most heavily-traveled, was one of thousands nationwide that are similarly rated.

GOV. TIM PAWLENTY: There is bridges all across this county, you know, 80,000 in the same designation of this bridge, that are deemed fit for service. And it may be that those designations across the whole country are just out of date or not as aggressive or practical as we need them to be.

MARK ROSENKER, Chair, NTSB: I don’t want to leave the impression that we have the answer. What we have is a step forward.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Late this afternoon, officials provided an update.

MARK ROSENKER: It’s the southern end that we’re specifically looking at. The reason we’re looking at that southern end is because we noticed that the section of this part of the bridge seemed to behave differently. What we believe is whatever created the failure we ultimately saw in its collapse, a 50-foot shift to the eastern part of the structure.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: President Bush will survey the scene and review the recovery operations tomorrow.

Tragedy for Minneapolis

JIM LEHRER: And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: For the latest on this story, I'm joined now by: R.T. Rybak, the mayor of Minneapolis; and Rich Stanek, the sheriff of Hennepin County.

Mayor, let's start with you. For all of the real tragedy for those lost, is there also kind of a relief today that the number of those missing and feared dead is now much lower?

MAYOR R.T. RYBAK, Minneapolis: Well, obviously, the issue in front of us, the fact that we're facing a massive tragedy that's not only about the physical damage, it's the huge, human tragedy that's going to go on for some time, so we're very pleased that the numbers are not as high as anticipated. But we really have to caution people that the casualties won't come in quick news bites.

We don't know how many people are under the debris in the water. We don't know who is downstream. And all that being said, this is a situation in which the community had a plan. We executed our emergency plan. And we took a terrible situation, and I think we're able to keep it from getting worse. We are proud of that, despite of the tragedy that we face.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the accounts of the hours after the collapse feature just regular people pitching in and helping out. I don't know how much they can be part of a disaster plan, but I guess you're lucky you have them.

R.T. RYBAK: You know, actually, they are very much a part of our disaster plan, because they're part of what -- not only what the city has planned, what we do, but we have citizen patrols who are part of it. I think one of the things cities recognized in the wake of Katrina is that the citizen response can also be part of it. Now, granted, what you've seen mostly has been a government response here, but we planned quite a bit about how citizens can be welcomed and part of the solution.

RAY SUAREZ: Has this unusual disaster provoked the kind of conversation, a kind of reflection, not only in City Hall, but among the 400,000 people or so that you lead?

R.T. RYBAK: I'm sorry, I didn't fully hear that question.

Questions about infrastructure

RAY SUAREZ: Has the unusual nature of this disaster provoked a conversation about safety, about transportation, about emergency response, not only in your office, but among the 400,000 or so people of Minneapolis?

R.T. RYBAK: Well, I think absolutely, but I'm certainly hoping that this sparks the conversation we need in this country desperately about the fact that we have ignored our infrastructure. We don't know why this bridge fell completely. I think everyone has the right to ask them incredibly tough questions about this bridge and every other bridge and every other piece of infrastructure in America, in a country where we seem to have resources for so many things, and yet not for those basic pieces that we cross every day.

Mayors like me around the country have been calling attention to this. I think, unfortunately, that's been ignored. There is no consistency for a pothole or a bridge, and so a horrible disaster occurred. We, I think, have responded as a country too late to this for the people who are victims of this, but God willing, we will finally wake up to the fact that it's time now to do something about this.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, today was the second workday since the bridge collapse. Are Minneapolitans able to get around? Are you able to move the people in and out of your city that need to get to work and other places?

R.T. RYBAK: We obviously have challenges, but we're proud of the fact this is a city that works. And it rolls up its sleeves, and it gets things done.

A couple hours ago, I met with about a hundred business leaders. We talked through the issue that, while we got through these past two days, the next few weeks and months are going to be about each of them sending a clear, strong message that we want their employees using transit, that an act of compassion includes asking a co-worker to ride in a carpool with them.

And when tough tragedy faces people in Minneapolis and people in Minnesota, we come together and we get things done. I hope we never have the, quote, unquote, "opportunity" to do what we've done these past couple days, but I hope we've demonstrated that this, in a city and a state that work, we're going to get things done.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about that meeting with city leaders. Doesn't this come at a time when Minneapolis and its region are already locked in intense debate about how people are going to get around, debates about highway construction, and light rail, and so on?

R.T. RYBAK: Well, I've been part of a coalition here in Minnesota that believes we've underinvested in transportation and transit. I think that it's clear that, with the climate crisis that we're facing, we are sticking our head in the sand unless we address how we get to work, how we get around.

And, sure, there's a huge debate about transportation all around the country, and I'm certainly one of the mayors in the country and leaders in this state who believe that we need to do much, much more. That being said, 43 percent of the downtown workforce takes buses. This is the second-biggest bike commuting city in the country. We're people who believe in that.

But I think right now, frankly, as much as these big issues are a part of it, my focus has to be on the human tragedy and making sure that I give the comfort and the support to the people who are here. We're going to be at this for a long time, Ray, and we know that.

It's not clear how many people are under there. It's not clear who actually is suffering the most. And so I think what we have to do is ask these big questions, get the big plans underway, but also stop and make sure we look each other in the eye and tell those who are suffering huge losses that we also understand their personal experiences.

New information on the recovery

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mayor Rybak, thank you very much. Let me move on to Sheriff Stanek for a progress report on just those efforts to recover the missing.

What made it possible? What kind of intelligence were you getting that allowed you to lower that number of those feared missing and dead to a much lower number?

RICH STANEK: You know, through investigations and checking out who was reported missing, we were able to locate a number of people and lower that number rather substantially at this point. I caution folks, though, that that's just a number that we're not able to pinpoint at this time. It could go up; it could go down. God willing, it will go down, that we will find these folks alive and well.

Just this morning, there was a young lady whose car we recovered in the river, no one in it. Through investigation, we found her to be at work. She had been rescued on Wednesday night. She reported for work on Thursday and Friday. And, you know, that's one of the success stories out of this.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, right now, the number of cars that you've located through various means in the river far outstrips those still reported missing. Do you think it's just a question of tracking a lot of those people down?

RICH STANEK: No. I think it's a combination of the two, in terms of right now we've got between seven and nine individuals reported missing by family members. That number could go higher. Hopefully, it would go lower.

We've recovered 12 vehicles in the river itself; 11 of the vehicles have been cleared, meaning no victims inside. One of the vehicles is crushed by another vehicle on top of it. We're not able to get to that one at this point. But the rescue operations, the recovery operations, continue on rather intensely.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there submerged vehicles in the river that you may not be able to confidently declare empty of people until you start to lift the bridge out of the river itself?

RICH STANEK: Absolutely. The one example I just gave you, where one vehicle is crushing another vehicle, we are not confident that that vehicle is clear or empty in terms of human victims.

Secondly, as the mayor pointed out, there's just an incredible amount of debris, concrete, rebar, in the river itself. We fear that there may be additional vehicles trapped under that concrete. It will be days, if not weeks, before we're able to remove that and get an accurate picture of what exactly is under there.

Challenges for underwater divers

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of word are you getting from the divers who are coming up? We hear reports of terrible visibility down there. How are they doing their work?

RICH STANEK: You know, just within the last hour, I met with one of our dive teams, three divers from Washington County, Minnesota. They told me that visibility down there is about a foot-and-a-half to two feet in front of them. Essentially, they're using the Braille method.

They anchor themselves down by tethered rope. They feel what they can feel. They can't see very well. That's the kind of conditions they're dealing with. On top of that, they've got that heavy debris in the water, concrete and rebar, unstable conditions at best, swift currents created by small eddies and whirlpool tides.

Not the greatest diving conditions. If we didn't have to be here, we would not, but these folks are committed to what they do. We're committed to bringing peace and solace to the families and reunite them with their loved ones.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you still getting word from members of the public? Are people still calling you with both questions and bits of intelligence and information that they think you should have?

RICH STANEK: Absolutely. People are calling us with information about what they saw. People are sending us their pictures and videos. We're turning this information over to our unified command post, as well as the NTSB for their investigation.

RAY SUAREZ: And are people crowding the two sides of the river to take a look at this thing? Are you now in a position where you also have to keep people back from the area?

RICH STANEK: Yes. Well, you know, natural curiosity by the general public. But, again, Minnesotans have been fairly compassionate and helped us out quite a bit by staying away from this site. The curiosity, of course, is great.

We've set up a very tight perimeter to provide security. As law enforcement refers to this, this is a crime scene until we determined what exactly happened with the bridge collapse, why it collapsed, and with that comes a lot of precautions taken in place.

RAY SUAREZ: Sheriff Rich Stanek and Mayor R.T. Rybak, gentlemen, thank you both.