Fears that the death toll would rise dramatically as workers searched through the wreckage of a bridge that plunged into the Mississippi River eased Friday when authorities lowered the number of missing from as many as 30 to just eight.
Crews, weary from searching through swirling currents and waters
muddied by debris, were encouraged by the news. Dozens were feared dead because the bridge fell during bumper-to-bumper traffic.
"We were surprised that we didn't have more people seriously injured and killed," Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack told The Associated Press. "I think it was something of a miracle."
At least five people were killed and 79 injured when the Interstate 35W bridge plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River on Wednesday afternoon. The crash immediately launched questions about the safety record of the bridge, which had been declared "structurally deficient" as early as 1990.
Firefighters pulled the fifth victim, the driver of a tractor-trailer that was engulfed in flames in the collapse, from the wreckage late Thursday, fire department spokeswoman Kristi Rollwagen said. Video of the burning rig, nose down in the crevasse between two broken concrete slabs, was among the most compelling images shown in the immediate aftermath of the collapse.
The driver had not yet been publicly identified.
More bodies had been spotted in the water, but conditions were "even more treacherous" Friday than a day earlier, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said. Crews have been hampered by fast-moving currents and low visibility as they search for submerged vehicles and trapped victims.
Fourteen people were at Hennepin County Medical Center, where most of the victims were taken, with five of them still in critical condition, spokeswoman Kathy Roberts said Friday.
Crews focused on 13 areas on the upstream side of the collapse, including four vehicles that were partially submerged, Stanek said. Divers worked in pairs, diving for 30 minutes at a time, with two in the water and two remaining above as a safety precaution.
First lady Laura Bush visited the scene Friday morning. During a tour of the disaster site, she praised the rescuers who rushed to the bridge in the chaos after the collapse. "There's so many good stories," Bush said of the response. It "lifts people and it really encourages people."
Bush spoke on a small hill, yards away from a school bus that was carrying children when the bridge began to give way. More than 65 feet below, a boat with three searchers moved slowly back and forth.
President Bush was scheduled to visit Saturday for a recovery briefing.
Among those still missing is Sadiya Sahal, 23, and her 2-year-old daughter, Hanah Mohamed. Sahal, who is five months pregnant, left home at 5:15 p.m. with the toddler in the back seat. She called her family at 5:30 p.m. saying she was stuck in traffic on the bridge, according to Omar Jamal, a spokesman for the family. That was her last phone call.
"Her husband is destroyed. He's in shock," Jamal said.
Officials identified the dead as Sherry Engebretsen, 60, of suburban Shoreview; Julia Blackhawk, 32, of Savage; Patrick Holmes, 36, of Moundsview; and Artemio Trinidad-Mena, 29, of Minneapolis.
Ronald Engebretsen said he and his family were trying to come to grips with his wife's death. "She's a great person. She's a person of great conviction, great integrity, great honesty and great faith in her God," he said.
Shanna Hanson, a fire captain shown on video searching cars in the water shortly after the collapse, plunged into the water with no gear save a rope around her waist. She downplayed her efforts but described the conditions as extremely hazardous.
"You have the jagged metal and broken glass, and the problem is you can't see what's around you and you don't know what else you're going to bump into," she told CNN.
Despite the powerful images of devastation from the collapse, some believed the design of the bridge reduced the death toll.
Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said the bridge's underlying arch truss stopped heavy pieces of steel from falling onto vehicles when the cars plunged into the water.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs, but said the state was never warned that the I-35W bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired. A separate firm has been hired to review the state's inspection processes and protocols, he said.
"They made decisions at a technical level to say the bridge was fit for service subject to additional inspections," Pawlenty said. "We need to go back and review those decisions critically and get to the bottom of it."
More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient like the I-35W bridge, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.
Authorities said the "structurally deficient" tag simply means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement. It wasn't a candidate for replacement until 2020.
The collapsed bridge is one of 1,160 bridges in that category, which amounts to 8 percent of bridges in the state. Nationally, about 12 percent of bridges are labeled "structurally deficient."
During the 1990s, inspections found fatigue cracks and corrosion in the steel around the bridge's joints. Those problems were repaired. Starting in 1993, the bridge was inspected annually instead of every other year.
After a study raised concern about cracks, the state was given two alternatives: Add steel plates to reinforce critical parts or conduct a thorough inspection of certain areas to see if there were additional cracks. They chose the inspection route, beginning that examination in May.
"We thought we had done all we could," state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said near the mangled remains of the span. "Obviously something went terribly wrong."
Although concern was raised about cracks, some experts theorized it's no coincidence the collapse happened when workers and heavy equipment were on the bridge. The construction work involved resurfacing and maintenance on guardrails and lights, among other repairs.
"I would be stunned if this didn't have something to do with the construction project," said David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University. "I think it's a major factor."
The White House said Friday the president supports "necessary funding" to rebuild the bridge. The Minnesota congressional delegation has sought $250 million.
On Thursday, the House Transportation Committee approved legislation that would waive the $100 million federal limit per state for emergency relief funds, and direct $250 million to Minnesota. The bills are supported by leaders in both chambers, and sponsors hope to get the bill passed before Congress leaves for its monthlong summer break Friday.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)