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Minneapolis Faces Its Future As Crews Prepare to Clean Up Bridge Collapse

August 6, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now, a look at how the Minneapolis area is dealing with, and reacting to, last week’s bridge collapse. NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has our report.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, NewsHour Correspondent: The interfaith event Sunday night was billed as a service of healing to comfort those directly affected by the bridge disaster. But Rabbi Sim Glaser said everyone was affected.

RABBI SIM GLASER, Temple Israel, Minneapolis: We know someone who knows someone who knows someone, or even if we do not, we know that our neighbors have been harmed and that darkness dims our own homes. Our city has suddenly become smaller.

Our friends call us from around the country and the world and they ask us if we were there. Most of us say, “No, we’re fine,” and our loved ones are relieved to hear it, and they are able to move on. But somehow the shadows linger, and we are strangely moved to prayer.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Some who came had prayers of thanks as well as sympathy.

JANE GEPPERT: My husband rides his bicycle under that bridge every night at 6:00, and that night he had to work late. And for a split second, I was in panic, and I was calling and waiting, and I was so grateful to hear his voice. And my heart goes out to the families that still don’t know.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The names of the eight missing were released over the weekend. They include 45-year-old Greg Jolstad; 23-year-old Sadiya Sahal and her 2-year-old daughter, Hanah. Many who came to this makeshift memorial to accident victims said they were thankful the casualty numbers were low, five confirmed dead and about 100 injured.

KAREN GILSETH: I’m just amazed that, you know, 100 people and 75 are at home, and I’m amazed that more people didn’t get hurt.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Or didn’t get killed.

KAREN GILSETH: Right, right.

BOB BARNI: Previous to, you know, to now, people thought that the death toll was going to be really, really, high, and it’s pretty lucky that it’s not any more than what it was.

Traveled a million times

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Bob Barni was among large crowds drawn by a mild summer Sunday to Minneapolis' landmark Stone Arch Bridge, trying to glimpse what remained of the bridge that never had a name, just I-35W.

BOB BARNI: I think everybody here in the city would look at it and say, you know, "How many times did we cross that bridge?" And everybody's got some personal connection, because we all use it.

MINNEAPOLIS RESIDENT: Well, I've traveled it a million times.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Did you even think about it while you were on it?

MINNEAPOLIS RESIDENT: Oh, no.

MINNEAPOLIS RESIDENT: Take it for granted that it's safe, for one.

MINNEAPOLIS RESIDENT: Right.

MINNEAPOLIS RESIDENT: You expect it to be safe, anyway. It's kind of amazing that something like this would happen, during the middle of the day on a day that was just normal.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This is a place that prides itself on conquering the extremes of weather and nature, but historian Hy Berman says this disaster was different.

HY BERMAN, Historian: I think people have been moved. And they've been moved by other natural disasters. I'm thinking of the Grand Forks flood, and I'm thinking also of the 1967 Mississippi River flood, which brought Lyndon Johnson into Minnesota.

But, really, it wasn't the same thing. An act of God and an act of nature is something we expect, but the collapse of a bridge is something unique. It was an act of man. And, of course, it was an act of man that perhaps could have been prevented that brings the kind of reaction that we have had.

Reaction at the state level

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That reaction is most pronounced at the state capital. The issue of how to fund highways and bridges has long been a contentious one at the Minnesota legislature. Just this past session, the Republican governor vetoed a five-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax hike.

But all of that changed in the hours following the bridge collapse. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and the governor now say a special session will be called in the weeks ahead to pass a transportation bill that will most certainly include a gasoline tax hike.

The new revenue will go to maintain roads and bridges. Curt Johnson, chief of staff to a previous Republican governor now an urban affairs consultant, says the Minnesota disaster was the mother of all wake-up calls.

CURT JOHNSON, Urban Affairs Consultant: At the very least, it has just exploded the paralysis that our politics were in about transportation, and somehow it got partisan. It's kind of silly that it should be, but it did.

And then we had this episode in the last few years where the legislature actually passed a pretty robust transportation finance bill, twice, and the governor vetoed it both times, the first time saying something about, "How dumb could these legislators be?" And his objection was on principle that the bill raised revenue, and he was just philosophically against that.

Well, now even he has something of a change of heart, says everything is on the table, and I think all of us, no matter what side we were on in that debate, admire that change of mind.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many on their Sunday stroll also admit to a change of heart.

Would you support a gas tax increase?

KAREN GILSETH: Yes, if it's going to keep us safe.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: If I had asked you that question on Tuesday, would I have gotten the same answer?

KAREN GILSETH: Probably not.

Preparing for clean-up

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: More immediately, the Twin Cities metro area must begin grappling with challenges like how to detour the 140,000 cars that use the I-35 bridge each day. A St. Paul contractor has been hired to remove debris and smashed vehicles. The clean-up is expected to cost $15 million.

Divers, including teams from the FBI and the Navy, continue the search for those still missing.

SHERIFF RICHARD STANEK, Hennepin County, Minnesota: We've had a number of meetings with the family members, and I think they do understand. They thanked us for coming to them, spending the time with them, being open and honest and candid.

There is no easy way to do this. It's tough for our investigators. It's tough for the divers. It's tough for the personnel on the perimeter, what they see behind you day in and day out.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This afternoon, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek updated reporters.

SHERIFF RICHARD STANEK: We have recovered seven vehicles from that murky river bottom. We've identified seven vehicles. We believe that a good possibility that there are additional vehicles under the tons and tons and tons of debris and rebar that's now spanning across the river, laying on the bottom rather than up in the air where it should be. And that's where we're going to concentrate our efforts.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meanwhile, National Transportation Safety Board investigators say it could take up to 18 months to determine the cause of the collapse. It will be a tedious, at times painful, period of readjustment.

It's a period some at Sunday's prayer service, like Imam Hamdy El Sawaf, seemed to anticipate.

IMAM HAMDY EL SAWAF: If a bridge made of iron, steel, cement and concrete collapses, suddenly a human bridge of faith, trust, confidence and hope must be established immediately: a human bridge of faith in God Almighty most gracious and most merciful; a human bridge of trust in our leadership and our governor and mayors to guide us to the best ever to the state of Minnesota.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: State officials say the bridge could be rebuilt by late 2008, and they add that the price tag will likely exceed the $250 million approved late last week by Congress.