MINNEAPOLIS – Investigators want to know why the southern span of Minneapolis’ I-35W bridge shifted sideways as much as 50 feet as it collapsed, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday as the investigation into the bridge failure continued.
NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said investigators “will be making a very thorough examination of that southern end” as well as “any unique design factors” that may have caused the bridge to shift. The southern end was the only portion of the bridge that shifted during the Wednesday collapse, he said.
A fifth body was recovered from the collapsed bridge Friday. Divers continued to search the Mississippi River near the bridge, but officials said the final death toll may be lower than originally feared.
The fifth victim, the driver of a tractor-trailer rig that was engulfed in flames immediately after the structure collapsed Wednesday during rush hour, was found late Thursday on the bridge decking, Fire Department spokeswoman Kristi Rollwagen said.
Eight remain missing
Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek said the number of people unaccounted for in the disaster has dropped to eight. About 60 vehicles are visible in the wreckage; more are submerged, he said. Seventeen divers are working in the river in 30-minute shifts, he said.
Stanek cautioned it was difficult to predict a final death toll until all of the wreckage can be surveyed.
Capt. Bill Chandler, of the Sheriff’s Department, said conditions were better for divers Friday because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the flow of water into the river, had lowered the water level by about two feet.
“As divers are diving, they don’t have the strong current they would normally have in the area,” Chandler said.
The officials also said some of those unaccounted for have been found. He said the occupant of one of the submerged cars turned up safe at work on Friday and two others were found in the hospital.
Chandler noted that the windows in some of the cars were rolled down but cautioned this did not necessarily mean the occupants got out.
“We are going under the assumption that there are still people in the water,” Chandler said.
Crews planned to focus on 13 areas on the upstream side of the collapse, including four vehicles that were partially submerged and had been checked briefly Wednesday or Thursday, he said.
Fourteen people were still 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.
As Congress moved to approve $250 million in emergency spending to replace the bridge, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he is considering calling a special session of the Legislature to deal with transportation issues.
The bridge had been designated “structurally deficient” as early as 1990, but Pawlenty 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.
First lady visits
Also Friday, first lady Laura Bush met dozens of volunteers and rescue workers, including Shanna Hanson, a volunteer firefighter who was one of the first responders on the scene. She had been waterskiing on the river when the bridge fell.
Deputy Police Chief Rob Allen stood on a hill with Bush overlooking the flattened freeway bridge and described a school bus tangled in the wreckage.
“If you ever need proof of the hand of God, just look where that bus is,” Allen said. “Two seconds later, there’s a massive fire right where the cab of that truck is, and those kids would have been killed in a fire. Two seconds earlier, and it’s in the river.”
The 60 youngsters all made it safely out of the debris.
“The whole country has seen the strength of the Minneapolis-St. Paul community, and because we’ve seen that strength, we all are confident that the bridge will be rebuilt and that your city will heal,” Bush said.
Minneapolis had sunny weather with temperatures in the 80s Friday, but conditions today could worsen, complicating recovery efforts. The forecast calls for rain with a chance of storms.