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With bright white lights, a hushed atmosphere and chunks of steel twisted into impossible shapes, it feels more like a museum than a garage. But it is the new home for crucial remnants of the old Interstate 35W bridge.
The bridge's many pieces are all in Minnesota again -- now that the National Transportation Safety Board has returned the parts it needed for its investigation. The bridge parts arrived from the East Coast over the weekend and are being housed in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Oakdale built especially for that purpose. There the parts will be protected from wind and water so that lawyers and engineers can examine them for the many lawsuits related to the bridge's collapse.
Despite the museum vibe, the array won't be open to the public. The Department of Transportation allowed the news media to have a look as Wednesday afternoon's rain drummed on the unheated building's metal roof, but all visitors must be approved by the state attorney general's office, said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.
Some of the walkways between the chunks of steel are crooked and narrow, with rusted, jagged edges everywhere. The green-and-orange parts rest on thick boards that protect the smooth concrete floor.
Many of the pieces look as though they melted in intense heat. The gusset plate that the NTSB said was the likely cause of the collapse is curled like a potato chip. It is part of a mass so twisted that investigators drew arrows to indicate which way used to be north and which way used to be up.
The bridge's bearings are also there, hauled in this month from a patch of parkland on the Minneapolis riverfront. They were moved gently enough that weeds that had sprouted in pockets of dirt arrived upright and intact. Measuring tape affixed to the bearings back in 1967 to calculate movement was visible.
The bland tan warehouse is on state property, between a State Patrol office and a shop where highway signs are made. MnDOT built it for $230,000, less than half an earlier estimate.
Bridge debris considered not worth re-examining is at a MnDOT yard in Afton, while other pieces too large to move from the spot along the Mississippi River will be stored there indefinitely because cutting them apart to fit them on trucks could compromise the evidence. The area is just downstream from where the bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100.
The first court cases are expected to start being heard in March 2011.
Jim Foti • 612-673-4491