MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Authorities said they uncovered more bodies on Thursday from the wreckage of a U.S. highway bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River, and more than 20 people were missing.
A section of the bridge in Minneapolis plunged into the river during Wednesday evening’s rush hour in a deadly avalanche of steel and concrete, flipping dozens of vehicles into the river or onto the debris.
“Several (more) people are confirmed dead at the scene,” Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said, in addition to the four deaths already confirmed by the local coroner.
Dolan would not be more specific about the toll on the Interstate 35W bridge.
About 60 people were injured.
The death toll was almost certain to climb as recovery work continued.
“These are horrible images but within each of those images is a story. That car you see tangled in the wreckage is someone’s cousin, brother or husband, “ Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told reporters.
“Thank God this wasn’t worse.”
The 40-year-old steel-truss bridge carried at least 100,000 vehicles a day. The section of the bridge that collapsed stood about 65 feet (20 metres) above the river at that point.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in network television interviews the bridge had passed inspections, although it was among thousands of bridges across the country deemed to be “structurally deficient” in a federal government report.
Federal investigators were on their way to probe the cause.
Rybak said it was too early to pinpoint a cause.
Witnesses to the disaster recalled people screaming, “We’re going into the water.”
“There are cars in the water. A dozen cars are visible. We don’t know what’s underneath. We haven’t removed anything from the river. We’re are treating it like a crime scene,” a police official said.
Several workers who had been doing resurfacing work that closed some of the span’s eight lanes were among those hurled into the river.
One of the workers was among the missing and feared dead, said Michael McGray, president of the highway contractor, Progressive Contractors Inc.
“But we don’t give up hope,” McGray said, adding he had “no idea” what might have caused the collapse.
President George W. Bush sent Transportation Department Secretary Mary Peters to the scene.
“We will take every step possible to make sure something like this will never happen again,” Peters told a news conference in Minneapolis of local and federal officials.
She announced an initial federal contribution of $5 million to restore traffic flow, clear the debris and begin the repair work.
“We in the federal government must respond and respond robustly to help the people there not only recover but to make sure that lifeline of activity, that bridge, gets rebuilt as quickly as possible,” Bush said in a statement at the White House.
Some of the injured were pulled from half-submerged vehicles and some swam to safety.
Several motorists were critically injured, suffering broken bones, and head, neck and spinal injuries, a hospital emergency room physician said.
A school bus carrying mostly children landed on its tires, and the 59 children and adults on board scrambled out the back exit, bloodied and bruised.
“There was smoke and noise. Everybody was screaming,” said one girl who had been on the bus.
Additional reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu and Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Carey Gillam in Kansas City