Death Toll Uncertain in Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

The National Transportation Safety Board has sent a Go Team to Minneapolis to investigate the collapse of a highway bridge there Aug. 1 during rush hour. The bridge, loaded with traffic, dropped more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River, injuring at least 62 people. The Hennepin County medical examiner on Thursday morning said the confirmed death toll was four, lower than the seven to nine deaths reported earlier, but officials added that they expected the death toll to rise. Also by Thursday morning, 20 to 30 people were still missing, according to Minneapolis police Chief Tim Dolan. The U.S. Coast Guard said 30 to 50 cars remain in the river.

Search operations on the river were halted around nightfall on Wednesday for safety reasons. Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek said recovery efforts could take five days or more. He said crews were being extra cautious as the fallen structure was combining with Mississippi River currents to make conditions treacherous.

According to the Minneapolis Riverfront District Web site, the steel arch bridge was opened in 1967. Its longest span stretches 458 feet over the river, and it was constructed with no mid-river piers to facilitate river traffic. The bridge was undergoing nonstructural re-decking work, U.S. DOT spokesman Brian Turmail said. There were eight construction workers on the bridge at the time of the collapse, and one of them is unaccounted for, said Mike McGray, president of Progressive Contractors, the company doing the repair work on the bridge.

A 2001 study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation found "several fatigue problems" in the bridge's approach spans and "poor fatigue details" on the main truss. The study suggested that the design of bridge's main truss could cause a collapse if one of two support planes were to become cracked, although it allowed that a collapse might not occur in that event. But, the study concluded, "fatigue cracking of the deck truss is not likely" and "replacement of the bridge ... may be deferred." About 100,000 cars a day travel over the bridge, according to the Minnesota DOT.

Gary Van Etten has been designated Investigator-in-Charge of the seven-member NTSB team. NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker is accompanying the team and serving as principal spokesman for the on-scene investigation. Terry Williams is the press officer traveling with the team.

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