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7 autos found; still no sign of 8 missing

Debris is being cleared from the site of the Minneapolis bridge collapse -- revealing clues, authorities hope.

August 07, 2007|E.A. Torriero and James Janega | Chicago Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — As Navy divers combed the gnarled wreckage of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge Monday, federal agents searched for the missing using a submarine, a helicopter equipped with cameras, and detailed images captured from scanners onshore.

But by rush hour -- five days after the late-afternoon collapse -- the minute search still yielded no word on the eight people still missing and believed to have perished.

Seven previously hidden vehicles were found in the Mississippi River and amid the rubble on Monday, authorities said.

Officials said six of the vehicles' occupants were accounted for, among either the five recovered bodies or the dozens of survivors.

In a seventh vehicle, no belongings were traced to a missing person.

"There is no easy way to talk to the families about this stuff," said Hennepin County Sheriff Richard W. Stanek.

Crews from various agencies are clearing debris and dumping it onto barges. The debris will then be reassembled at a location downriver so that authorities can investigate what may have caused the bridge to come apart.

Authorities hope as the debris at the site thins that clues to the fate of the lost will emerge. Searchers are also stationed downriver looking for bodies.

"I expect that things will start to move along pretty soon," Stanek said. "Bank to bank, our goal is to recover victims.... There's a lot of resources being deployed here to get this mission done."

One of the resources is the Minneapolis Violent Criminal Apprehension Team -- detectives who usually hunt fugitives.

Their skills were diverted to help determine whether any of the missing survived the collapse but did not report to authorities.

With authorities initially fearing a death toll as high as 30 to 40, the unit's work was crucial in helping to lower death estimates.

Detectives used emergency subpoenas for cellphone records in search of the clues and updated families on each new discovery.

As divers search the wreckage and locate or identify a vehicle, the team's work also involves collating each agency's investigative information -- makes and models of cars, license plate numbers, and recovered items from vehicles -- into a database.

"We're pulling out every tool we have," said Minneapolis Police Capt. Mike Martin, who is coordinating the investigative efforts into finding the missing.

Officials hope their estimate of eight missing people is high enough, but they fear there could be more.

"There are homeless, joggers, bike riders, people from out of town, whose families might not know they were missing," Martin said.

Meanwhile, federal investigators said Monday that they were focusing on whether vibrations from a bridge resurfacing project could have destabilized the bridge.

State transportation authorities said Monday that a 2-inch layer of concrete was taken off much of the bridge surface and then replaced.

But in eight spots, the full 9-inch layer had to be removed and repaired.

The state authorities refused to speculate about whether the spot repairs had anything to do with the collapse, leaving it to federal authorities to investigate.

"We're going to be looking at that entire area where the construction was being done," said Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

On Monday, state officials indicated that as soon as the site was cleaned and combed -- expected soon -- it would be the focus of an intense, fast-track building of a bridge.

As funding worked its way through Washington, officials announced that a new bridge could be in place by late next year -- about half the usual building timetable

Bids will be accepted Wednesday, a week after the bridge collapsed.

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