Blaming begins in Minneapolis bridge collapse
Sat, Aug 04, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug 3 (Reuters) - The Minneapolis Fire Chief said on Friday it was a miracle that only five people had so far been confirmed dead in the collapse of one of the city's main road bridges over the Mississippi River.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said outside experts would review the decisions of state engineers to delay certain repair work on the heavily traveled 40-year-old bridge, which crumpled during evening rush hour on Wednesday.

After a day in which divers tried to reach the bodies of more victims amid the smashed cars and blocks of concrete in the treacherous waters, Fire Chief Jim Clack said a fifth victim was found and more bodies were certain to be found.

"With that big a piece of the bridge falling in the river and the time of day, I thought it would be much worse," Clack told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"Initially, when this happened, I was worried there would be dozens of fatalities, if not hundreds. It's quite a miracle really," he said.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said an official estimate of eight people still missing was "fluid" and subject to change. One person reported missing had turned up safe at work, he said.

Twenty-seven of the 98 people injured in the disaster remained in area hospitals, including five in critical condition and another five in serious condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

But that work, which Pawlenty said fit in the state's budget, was postponed by resurfacing and repair work which was under way when the bridge buckled and fell.

"Experts that we rely on, technical experts and engineers, made some decisions about what needed to be done. They thought they were making an appropriate decision for their reasons, and now those decisions will have to be reviewed," Pawlenty said. A private engineering firm had been hired for the review.

"The bridge was declared fit for service," he said. "There will be tough questions asked, including by me, and we will get to the bottom of this."

In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized $250 million for the initial reconstruction of the bridge and to reimburse local governments for the cost of extra buses and other efforts to alleviate traffic snarls. The Senate was also expected to approve the money.

Divers searched submerged cars that had tumbled 65 feet (20 meters) into the Mississippi. "This is very dangerous work because the divers can get caught in the debris, some of which is razor-sharp," Clack said.

Divers battled swift currents and had to feel their way in the muddy waters around twisted steel and chunks of concrete.

"You got gas in there, oil. Besides, the Mississippi River is not the cleanest place. You didn't have any visibility, you just felt," Minneapolis Fire Department diver Raoul Raymose said told on CBS.

The eight-lane span was a vital link over the Mississippi River and the most heavily used bridge in Minnesota with roughly 140,000 vehicles passing over each day.

"It is striking the bridge was carrying a load of traffic it was not designed for," said the Democratic Speaker of Minnesota's House, State Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Reconstruction estimates ranged as high as $500 million.

Visiting first lady Laura Bush praised the city's response: "We've seen the strength of your community, and because of that we're confident the bridge will be rebuilt and your city will heal."

President George W. Bush is scheduled to tour the scene on Saturday.

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