Bush to tour collapsed bridge as divers search for bodies
MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, Saturday (AFP) - President George W. Bush will today tour the highway bridge that crumbled into the Mississippi River as divers plunge back into murky waters in search of bodies. While the list of missing people continues to shrink, efforts to recover those trapped in the wreckage are moving slowly.
Swimming almost blindly through the submerged wreckage of fractured roadbed, twisted bridge supports and mangled vehicles, divers faced fierce currents and chunks of floating concrete as they spotted several bodies underwater but were unable to retrieve any of them.
|An aerial view of the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis. AP
But officials offered more hopeful news when they announced that only eight people were considered missing in the tragedy, besides the five already confirmed dead. That was a sharp downward revision from the 20-30 whom officials had earlier believed went missing when the eight-lane span fractured and plunged into the river below at the height of rush hour Wednesday.
“Those eight people -- and it's a very fluid number -- I hope they're just mistakes, that they're vacationing or something,” said Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek, who was leading the underwater recovery efforts.
No bodies have been pulled from the water since rescue operations were called off Wednesday night about four hours after the eight-lane bridge collapsed during the height of rush hour.
The body of one man was extracted Thursday night from a truck that burst into flames on the pieces of the bridge that was partially submerged, bringing the official death toll to five. Around 80 people were injured. “There's no sense of frustration. If I had my way I wouldn't find anyone in the water,” Stanek said about the divers not having retrieved any more bodies. Earlier he called river conditions on the second full day of recovery efforts “even more treacherous than yesterday.”Federal investigators said they were now focusing on the south end of the bridge, which had shifted about 50 feet (15 metres) as it collapsed while the rest of the bridge appeared to have collapsed in place.
“I am not saying the 50-foot shift created the fall,” National Transportation Safety Board chair Mark Rosenker told reporters. “We have a step forward.”Investigators will use a three-dimensional laser imaging device to map out the scene of the accident, a process that will take several days, and begin creating complex computer simulations of potential collapse scenarios.
They will then begin to move the piece of the debris deemed most critical to the investigation to a site downriver, Rosenker said.
US First Lady Laura Bush visited the accident site early Friday, while on a previously scheduled trip to Minneapolis for a youth conference.
“The destruction is unbelievable,” Bush said as she viewed the scene.
She met with disaster relief workers, and in a speech later lauded people who helped in the rescue.
“Over the last 43 hours, the whole country has seen the strength of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul community, and because we have seen that strength, we all are confident that the bridge will be rebuilt and that your city will heal,” she said at the scene of the collapsed bridge.
Recovery efforts were expected to take days because of the treacherous conditions.
Late on Friday, the US Congress authorized 250 million dollars of emergency funding to help deal with the fallout from the disaster.“The Senate is proud to help the people of Minnesota at this critical hour,” said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. The House of Representatives also passed similar legislation.
The missing included a pregnant woman and her infant, and a van with four Somali immigrants, local media reported.
The collapse drew fresh calls for a major overhaul of aging US infrastructure, with experts saying billions had to be spent to bring standards into line.
Officials had warned as early as 1990 that the bridge, part of the I-35 interstate highway and bearing more than 100,000 vehicles a day, had serious structural problems.
The American Society of Civil Engineers warned in a report two years ago that between 2000 and 2003, more than 27 percent of the nation's almost 600,000 bridges were rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.