MINNEAPOLIS – An elite team of Navy divers joined the search for victims of the interstate bridge collapse Tuesday, bringing lessons learned from such disasters as TWA Flight 800 and the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
The team of 16 divers and a five-member command crew arrived a day earlier. Once their gear arrived before dawn Tuesday, several divers immediately entered the Mississippi River even though local officials encouraged them to wait until daybreak.
“Two in the morning, they dove into the water,” Minneapolis police Capt. Mike Martin said, calling them “the best divers in the world.”
“These guys make our SWAT guys look humble,” Martin said.
Navy Senior Chief David Nagle said the divers wanted to get a feel for the area and were in the water for about two hours. Divers were back in the river by late morning, removing concrete rebar and other debris.
Also Tuesday, state officials laid out tentative plans for the bridge reconstruction, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty said his office was considering a victims’ compensation fund.
The dive team’s arrival raised hopes of speeding up the recovery operation. At least eight people are missing and presumed dead in last week’s collapse, with perhaps more still in the river. Five people are confirmed dead.
Joining the Navy team was an FBI dive crew, doing forensic work for the investigation. Their tools included a small unmanned submarine equipped with a robotic arm. “It’s basically crime-lab-underwater kind of work,” Martin said.
People across the city were invited to observe a moment of silence at 6:05 p.m., the time of the bridge collapse six days earlier.
Residents also gathered at parks near the collapsed bridge and upstream, removing their hats and bowing their heads. At one observance, people threw flowers and poured a vial of water into the river after blessing it.
“This is how we can really reverence the silence of the dead,” said Sister Rita McDonald of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
At 6:06 p.m., bells tolled at City Hall and churches.
Four people still hospitalized with injuries from the collapse improved Tuesday to serious condition, leaving only one person in critical condition. About 100 people were hurt in the disaster.
State officials announced tentative plans for the replacement bridge, with five lanes each way instead of four. The new bridge also might be built to accommodate bus rapid transit or light rail in the future.
Officials said that they will start narrowing the field of potential contractors this week, and that they hope to select the builder by Sept. 1.