A sign and flag hang from the Stone Arch Bridge on Tuesday, facing the site of the I-35W bridge collapse.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Ten-lane span with '08 finish is the plan

  • Article by: Rochelle Olson and Curt Brown
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • August 7, 2007 - 11:28 PM

Calling for a 10-lane bridge that would meet the growing demands of Twin Cities commuters, political leaders on Tuesday described a replacement for the collapsed Interstate 35W span that would be built swiftly, "right and safe."

The successor to the eight-lane bridge will be two spans with five lanes in each direction, including a transit option, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said as the state moved to have eligible design-build teams for the new bridge construction in place by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Navy and FBI divers searched the tangled wreckage for bodies, and four victims were upgraded from critical to serious condition at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Divers began their search at 2 a.m. Tuesday in the murky, fast-moving river, now presuming that the remains of the at least eight people missing are mired in the mangled bridge and crushed cars. No remains were recovered Tuesday.

The water flow and temperature should have allowed any bodies to rise to the surface within a day of Wednesday's bridge collapse. "That leads us to believe there's entrapment here," said Capt. Bill Chandler of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.

Elite teams of divers, most tethered to the surface, are finding the wreckage especially tricky. Authorities say waiting families are somber but understanding when officials explain the time-consuming job of mapping out points of entry for divers in the twisted debris.

"Just look at the scene and the magnitude of the devastation out there. It's treacherous and hazardous," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Only one victim remained in critical condition at HCMC on Tuesday. Five other survivors remained in less serious conditions at HCMC and other area hospitals.

The governor said the replacement span will be built swiftly but the Republican National Convention meeting in September 2008 "will not dictate the timetable for this bridge."

MnDOT officials have said a new bridge could be completed as soon as the end of next year. On Tuesday, officials declined to provide details about the time frame, cost estimate or design wish list. But their staff members met privately to work out some guiding principles.

Pawlenty and Rybak met for an hour behind closed doors with Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell and numerous other city, state and federal officials.

John Chiglo, MnDOT project manager for the new bridge, said the bridge is likely to be two parallel spans. He said MnDOT does not typically put bicycle or pedestrian trails on interstate bridges unless demand warrants them.

Transit options

Though short on details about the replacement bridge, officials emphasized a cooperative spirit. Rybak said "these are unique times that require unique partnerships." The DFL mayor has been a strong proponent of transit for the commuters who stream into the city to work and play daily.

The Republican governor has been less of a transit cheerleader, but sounded as if he is on board with what he called doing "due diligence" to "incorporate some form of transit vision" for the new bridge.

Contractors have until early today to submit their qualifications to build the bridge. Molnau said the state will limit the pool by Friday. Construction could begin within a couple of months.

Crime lab underwater

Dive teams from the U.S. Navy and FBI entered the Mississippi River at 2 a.m., facing the dangers of twisted debris. "They are specially trained to penetrate wreckage like this," said Capt. Rich Hooper, who supervises the Navy divers, who work in two eight-person shifts, using underwater torches and saws to cut away concrete and rebar.

Minneapolis police Capt. Mike Martin marveled at the divers' coordinated efforts. "It's like an orchestra down there -- it's unbelievable," he said. "It's basically a crime lab underwater and these are the best divers in the world."

The FBI divers, who will collect human remains, won't be able to use an unmanned submarine with a grabbing arm they brought along because of currents and cramped underwater conditions, said Paul McCabe, an FBI agent in Minneapolis. He said they'll try to use a shoebox-size remote-controlled tool equipped with lights and a video camera.

Removal creates logistical problems out of the water, too.

Salvage cranes from Bolander & Sons are in place and ready to remove bridge debris from the river, but must wait for the recovery work to end.

Martin, meanwhile, said the 10th Avenue bridge that runs parallel to the collapsed span will remain closed indefinitely "to ensure dignity at the site" for families of the missing. He said police are concerned about cars rear-ending each other as people slow to look at the wreckage.

Federal help wanted

Politicians moved on other fronts in response to the collapse. The Hennepin County Board voted to ask Pawlenty to petition President Bush for a disaster declaration in Minneapolis and the county to help access the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Public Assistance Grant Program, the Federal Aid Highway Emergency Relief Grant program and other aid. The last time Hennepin County asked for such a declaration was 10 years ago during a flood.

Pawlenty's office is evaluating whether to make the request. He also said his staff counsel is looking at the possibility of setting up a special victims' aid fund to help those hurt by the collapse.

U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar also are attempting to speed up the request for nearly $160 million in federal funding of the Northstar commuter rail line in response to the bridge collapse.

In the early evening, Rybak and Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan joined members of the families of several victims for a private gathering in a park on the Augsburg College campus. Dozens of people stood in a large circle and observed a moment of silence to honor the victims and those who came to their aid.

Pawlenty ordered that flags be flown at half staff today in honor of those who died.

Staff writers Jim Foti and Bill McAuliffe and the Associated Press contributed to this report. • 612-673-1747 • 612-673-4767

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