Inside the tent city

  • Article by: David Chanen
  • Star Tribune
  • August 13, 2007 - 10:45 PM

There is no ordinary day at the Interstate 35W bridge collapse command post, a neatly organized collection of tents, trucks and communication equipment crammed between several businesses along W. River Parkway.

Take Thursday, for instance. Minneapolis police Inspector Mike Martin started his day at 6:45 a.m. searching for a SWAT team. He was hoping it could rappel into the wreckage and retrieve a wheelchair used by a competitive racer from the back of the man's van on the bridge.

His next two hours consisted of meetings to discuss an upcoming visit by the U.S. secretary of transportation, diver safety, a consultant's study for the bridge contractor and the arrest of a man passing himself off as a bridge expert.

Then came the call to Martin's cell phone at 11:45 a.m.: The body of Peter Hausmann was being pulled from the river, the first of three victims to be retrieved that day. His next duty was the most painful.

"I immediately called our chaplain to notify the waiting families," Martin said. "My greatest concern was that they would find out the news through the media. I knew there would be more bodies soon."

Martin is a key member of the leadership team working meticulously to ensure the massive recovery effort runs cohesively while maintaining a sense of dignity for the victims. The command post coordinates the hourly actions of hundreds of workers, from the Coast Guard to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 'tent city' sprang up

At the post are two small white tents, the kind you see at the Uptown Art Fair, covering a huge staffing board, food and water. A third tent is home to the officers coordinating logistical needs and updating an inventory and equipment database. A truck full of ice hums close by.

Recognizing the operation will last for months, the command post is moving today into a triple-wide trailer at a nearby parking lot. It will be quite a transformation from the initial command post Aug. 1. That day, Minneapolis Deputy Chief Rob Allen, like hundreds of his colleagues, raced to the Mississippi River.

He trampled down the bank. He saw the kids in the school bus and people flailing in the water. The scene was already swamped with rescuers, so Allen scrambled back up to W. River Parkway and started to organize a command post. It started with his police vehicle and quickly overflowed into a nearby commercial printing company, which offered up conference rooms and warehouse space.

The command post spread to the company's parking lot. A "tent city" was growing, each puffy structure representing a group involved in the incident. They even set up a Wi-Fi network.

With an hour of the collapse, the Minneapolis Police Department's large mobile command unit arrived. Running non-stop, it became the nerve center of the command post.

Semitrailer trucks from local restaurants and retail stores soon rolled in, donating food, chairs, protective gloves and ATVs. Hundreds of officers set up a perimeter.

Allen said he didn't even know the extent of the bridge collapse until he went up in a State Patrol helicopter five hours afterward.

"I didn't need to know," he said.

If things go well, the command post should be a much quieter place after the first 24 hours. And it was, said Minneapolis Police Capt. Otto Wagenpfeil, who is in charge of operations.

"We train for this," he said. "We would think of something to be done, and it was often already being worked on. This is the way it was designed to happen."

Convention planning a bonus

The command post at W. River Parkway and 13th Avenue S. works in tandem with a smaller post closer to the river operated the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.

Preparation over the past months with other law enforcement agencies for next year's Republican National Convention helped build a level of trust and professionalism needed for their successful rescue results, Allen said.

"We had people who normally would be telling us what to do asking what they could do for us," he said.

Command post duties change from hour to hour. Officers can be hearing about a crane removing a car from the river one minute and then have to go to a meeting to talk about security for a visit by President Bush. There are usually three briefings a day.

"You become an air traffic controller," said Martin, who oversees the overall investigation of the collapse.

They also have to deal with issues that rarely pop up during normal police work. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, is on site to make sure officers wear protective eyeglasses and gloves.

The command post run by the Minneapolis Police Department has now been taken over by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Martin, who was promoted to inspector of the Police Department's Fourth Precinct last week, will start his new position in a couple weeks.

During 14-hour days as incident commander at the collapse site, there was one thing Allen didn't make part of his daily routine: looking at the mangled bridge.

"I couldn't do it," he said. "You think about the families connected with each vehicle."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465 •

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