MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ It was 1990 when the federal government first
issued an ominous label for the state's busiest bridge:
In the ensuing years, inspectors found cracks and corrosion on
the Interstate-35W bridge. They stepped up inspections from once
every two years to every year, and made what they thought were the
necessary repairs. They were convinced that the bridge had no safety
issues at all.
Their actions have come under intense scrutiny since the
40-year-old bridge plummeted into the Mississippi River on
Wednesday, killing at least four and injuring another 79.
Police said the death count would surely grow because bodies had
been spotted in the fast-moving currents. As many as 30 people were
still reported missing.
``We have a number of vehicles that are underneath big pieces of
concrete, and we do know we have some people in those vehicles,''
Police Chief Tim Dolan said Thursday. ``We know we do have more
casualties at the scene.''
The eight-lane I-35W bridge, which carried 141,000 vehicles a
day, was in the midst of mostly resurfacing repairs when it buckled
during the Wednesday evening rush hour.
Dozens of cars plummeted more than 18 metres into the Mississippi
River, some falling on top of one another. A school bus sat on the
Among the 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.
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker said
his investigators got two big breaks Thursday with a surveillance
video showing the collapse and a computer program that would analyze
how the bridge failed. Those two things would speed their work and
allow them to do a smaller reconstruction of part of the bridge
span, rather than the whole thing.
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 responded Thursday by ordering 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.
``There was a view that the bridge was ultimately and eventually
going to need to be replaced,'' he said. ``But it appears from the
information that we have available that a timeline for that was not
immediate or imminent, but more in the future.''
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.
``I think anybody who looks at the national picture, the national
statistics and says that we don't have a problem would be naive or
misleading the situation,'' Pawlenty said. ``We have a major
Authorities cautioned not to read too much into the
``structurally deficient'' tag. The designation 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 eight per cent of bridges in the state. Nationally,
about 12 per cent of bridges are labelled ``structurally
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.
State bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said the bearings could not have
been repaired without jacking up the entire deck of the bridge.
Because the bearings were not sliding, inspectors concluded the
corrosion was not a major issue.
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,'' Dorgan told reporters
near the mangled remains of the span. ``Obviously something went
The collapsed bridge's last full inspection was completed June
15, 2006. The report shows previous inspectors' notations of fatigue
cracks in the spans approaching the river, including one four feet
long that was reinforced with bolted plates.
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
``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.''