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‘Cars started flying’

Times Staff Writers

With a shudder and a thundering crack, an eight-lane bridge collapsed during Wednesday evening rush hour, plunging dozens of cars and people into the Mississippi River below.

The steel-and-concrete Interstate 35W span buckled and swayed, creaked, and then, in a terrifying instant, crumbled. Green girders and huge chunks of concrete crashed more than 60 feet into the water. One portion of the interstate caved into a jagged V, trapping several cars and drivers.

“Boom, boom, boom, and we were just dropping, dropping, dropping,” Jamie Winegar told the Associated Press.

Authorities confirmed nine dead late Wednesday night, and hospitals took in dozens of casualties. After dark, a thunderstorm threatened, complicating rescue efforts already made difficult because the wreckage was so unstable.

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“This will be a very tragic night when it is over,” Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

FBI agents who responded to the scene said there was no indication of terrorism.

“Although it is much too early to make any determination of the cause, we have no reason at this time to believe there is any nexus to terrorism,” FBI spokesman Paul McCabe said.

When it opened 40 years ago, the bridge was hailed for its novel design: an unbroken, 458-foot-long arch across the river. Engineers did not support the bridge mid-span with piers or pylons that would impede barge traffic on the Mississippi.

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State inspectors evaluated the bridge for stress in March 2001 and determined that it “should not have any problems with fatigue cracking in the foreseeable future.”

Inspectors recommended frequent inspection -- as often as every six months -- of the steel trusses that bore the most stress. But they concluded that the state “does not need to prematurely replace this bridge ... avoiding the high costs associated with such a large project.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that more recent inspections, including one last year, found “no structural deficits.” State workers were resurfacing part of the bridge at the time of the collapse and had closed off several lanes, contributing to a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.

Peter Siddons, a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, was stuck in that jam on his way home from work when he heard a crunch. He looked ahead and saw the bridge crumbling in a rolling wave. “It kept collapsing,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “down, down, down until it got to me.”

Siddons’ car rolled forward but stopped before falling into the water. He was able to climb over the wreckage and jump to safety.

“I thought I was dead,” Siddons said. “I honestly did. I thought it was over.”

Berndt Toivonen, 51, had the same reaction: “The bridge started to buckle. It went up, and it came down,” he said. “I thought I was gonna die.”

The scene at dusk Wednesday was horrific A school bus, which had been transporting as many as 60 children home from day camp, was wedged precariously against the concrete guard rail. (All the children were rescued, with some having minor injuries.)

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A tractor-trailer had plunged into a crevice; flames and black smoke shot from the wreckage. Cars were piled helter-skelter atop one another. Other vehicles were crushed under toppled road signs.

Survivors foundered in the river or struggled up ragged sections of the crumpled interstate. Some were bleeding; some leaned heavily on rescuers; many looked dazed. The most seriously wounded were carried out, on backboards or in rescuers’ arms.

Hundreds of rescuers -- including, one official said, every firefighter in Minneapolis -- swarmed the scene, on foot, in vehicles and in boats, watching the thunderclouds above with a wary eye.

“I don’t know how much more could go bad here, but right now we’ve got the perfect storm brewing out there, so we’re trying to work as hard as we can to pull people out,” said Kristi Rollwagen, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Witnesses and survivors could barely piece together their disjointed memories of a tragedy that struck without warning during a slow midweek commute. They spoke of a boom as loud as a plane crash, dust clouds, smoke, sprays of water shooting upward as heavy pieces of the bridge hit the river. They remembered screams; a pregnant woman stumbling; drivers emerging from their cars, bruised and bloodied; bikers speeding to the edge of the bridge to help.

They remembered how improbable it all seemed.

“It’s like it went in slow motion,” witness Janet Stately told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The cars looked like toys as they fell, she said. “And the noise, I don’t even know how to describe it to you.”

The bridge “started shaking, cars started flying, and I was falling,” Catherine Yankelevich, 29, told the Star Tribune. After her car hit the water, she climbed out a window and swam to shore.

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Yankelevich used to live in California and survived the 1994 Northridge earthquake. “I never expected anything like this to happen here,” she said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters and a team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were expected to arrive in Minneapolis early today.

“Down the road, they will be doing a full forensic analysis to see what caused this,” Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman said.

The immediate concern, however, was rescuing and treating victims. Banks of lights were brought in to allow crews to search the rubble well into the night. Local health officials put out an urgent call for blood donations.

The collapse occurred shortly before the start of a Minnesota Twins baseball game at the nearby Metrodome. Authorities decided to go ahead with the game -- after a moment of silence -- rather than add to the chaos by sending thousands of fans out onto the roads. The Twins have canceled the game and postponed groundbreaking for their new stadium, both scheduled for today.

Other logistical questions loom. The bridge carries an estimated 200,000 cars a day. That traffic will have to be rerouted indefinitely.

The bridge also was expected to be a key artery during the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2008.

But on Wednesday, no one was talking about logistics. Official after official sent out prayers to the victims. “Obviously,” Gov. Pawlenty said, “this is a catastrophe of historical proportion for Minnesota.”

Riccardi reported from Minneapolis.

Times staff writer Stephanie Simon contributed to this report.


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