Divers Search Mississippi River for Survivors

Divers are searching the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, and a huge rescue effort is under way after the entire span of the Interstate 35 West bridge over the Mississippi River buckled and collapsed into the river. Tom Scheck of Minnesota Public Radio talks to Melissa Block from the scene of the collapse; Melissa also talks with Wayne Armstrong, who witnessed the collapse.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block, updating you now on tonight's bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

The entire span of the I-35 West Bridge over the Mississippi River buckled and collapsed into the river at the height of the evening rush hour, just after 6 p.m. local time. It is a horrifying scene of twisted and mangled concrete, and a huge rescue effort is underway.

Tom Scheck of Minnesota Public Radio joins us from Minneapolis, near the scene of that bridge collapse. And Tom, describe for us, please, what you can see from where you are right now.

TOM SCHECK: Well, Melissa, I was standing about 200 yards - I was on the bridge, about 200 yards from the bridge, and law-enforcement personnel just moved everyone off, including emergency officials. They were saying they were a little concerned that perhaps the bridge could collapse a little bit more.

Now, I'm about 500 yards or so from the bridge, and what I see right now is a bridge - the bridge is collapsing dramatically into the Mississippi River. It's almost a dramatic drop-off. There are two train tracks underneath the bridge. And actually, the bridge collapsed on one of the trains and squished it pretty bad at this point.

BLOCK: And we mentioned this was the height of the evening rush hour. Has there been any estimate of how many cars were actually over the river when this bridge collapsed?

SCHECK: There have been some reports. Some folks have suggested there could have been as many as 50 cars or so. There was a Minnesota Twins' game that was about to start about an hour later. So with the rush hour, with the Twins' game, it was probably - just speaking from the fact that I've been on this road at that time, that it was probably about 50 or 60 cars, and they were probably bumper-to-bumper when the bridge collapsed.

BLOCK: And we mentioned that there's obviously a major rescue effort underway. What can you tell us about that?

SCHECK: Well, at this point in time, I talked to the chief of the state patrol, who said that the law enforcement officials were still coordinating their activities. An official with the city of Minneapolis told other local law enforcement that they could use as much help as possible.

Power companies are starting to move in, and they're cutting power cords right now. We saw some trucks driving in with boats on the back of them. So obviously, they're going to be going into the river. I can't see the river from where I am right now, but they're going to be going into the river.

The other thing that there are - the Associated Press is reporting that there are three deaths and at least a dozen injuries at this point, but this is still early information that we're getting.

BLOCK: Right. And apart from that span over the river, Tom, help us visualize this. There are chunks of this roadway leading up to the river that have -looked like they have just pancaked, accordioned, is that right?

SCHECK: Yeah. Well, basically, I was standing about 200 yards from where the bridge just dropped off. And then, what happens is there's a little bit of road, it's about 30 feet high - the bridge is about 30 feet higher than the road - and then it starts to shut off. And what happened was the bridge collapsed on one end, then, there's about a dozen cars and then there's just this dramatic drop-off. So there's about between six and twelve cars that are just like parked right near to where the bridge dramatically drops off. And some folks were suggesting that the - folks who were just running from their cars when the bridge collapsed.

BLOCK: There - earlier, at least - there was at least one vehicle that was on fire, there were fire crews on the scene, spraying water on a truck. Is that still going on or is that fire under control?

SCHACK: That actually ended about 10 minutes ago. And there was a school bus. Now, we're not - there are no - we don't know if there were any students on the bus or at the bus - you know, if anyone was injured. But there is a school bus that it was parked and kind of going to the incline or the other side of the river. So the bridge was going on an incline there and there's a school bus there, and another semi. Fire crews were hosing that down and they stopped at about 15 or 20 minutes ago.

BLOCK: And Tom, have you been able to talk to any survivors yourself?

SCHACK: No. I saw one - I talked to one person who said that they were in the car and they just took off from the scene and just ran back. And she was pretty shaken off. The other folks who were just there - right now, there's an emergency personnel and a whole lot of onlookers who just came to the scene, and they're just - kind of just sitting stone-faced, staring at this situation right now.

BLOCK: Okay, a terrifying time tonight in Minneapolis. Tom Scheck of Minnesota Public Radio, thanks very much.

SCHECK: Thank you.

BLOCK: We're joined now from Minneapolis by Wayne Armstrong, who was a witness to tonight's bridge collapse.

Mr. Armstrong, I understand, you work at a gas station not far from the bridge, is that right?

Mr. WAYNE ARMSTRONG: Yes, ma'am.

BLOCK: And can you tell me what you saw?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: What I seen was a lot of smoke. But first, it sounded like a bomb went off. The next thing you know, a lot of smoke came towards me, because all my lights went off and then a lot of smoke came towards me. And once the smoke came towards me and it cleared, I've seen a car go down and then the next thing I know - I think the truck that's sitting on top right now at angle, it was going to go down, but it stopped.

And then, I asked one of the guys that ran down there to see what happened. And then, he came back. I asked him what happened. He told me that the bridge has collapsed.

BLOCK: Have you heard from people who were in cars, headed towards the bridge? Have they come into your gas station?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. A couple, like, about four or five people that came in, they bought water and stuff. And...

BLOCK: What did they tell you?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: They told me that - Amen, I was just on that bridge - because they just crossing, but not just on that bridge. And I'm like, man, for real, God bless you. You know what's in the (unintelligible) - you're hurt.

BLOCK: Were they injured in any way or had they escaped all of the collapsed?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No. The one that - they just crossed over the bridge and then, all you heard was like a bomb there. Everything just cleared and then you just seen a lot of paramedics and polices. Everything just come past me. I'm like, now, whoa, hold on.

BLOCK: What are you seeing now?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: What I'm seeing now is the truck that I just explained to you. And it's sitting at an angle. And then you got another couple of cars that's sitting on the bridge right now. But other than that, I can't really see too much because I'm not down by the river.

BLOCK: Right. You don't have a vantage point into the river where, we understand, there are many cars that fell into the Mississippi itself.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes, ma'am.

BLOCK: Can you describe for us, Mr. Armstrong, where this bridge is in relation to the city of Minneapolis?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: The bridge is, I think, well the 4th and University Avenue, 35 W Bridge.

BLOCK: When you started hearing the noise, which you say sounded like a bomb, what did you think was going on?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: What I thought was going on?

BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, I thought they, you know, once I've seen all the smoke - I didn't know the bridge had collapsed. You know, once I've seen all the smoke and stuff, once I've seen all the smoke, I just thought - you know what I'm saying - that they would just tend out the road. I thought that - you know what I'm saying - just tend out the bridge and put up a new one. And today, everybody's telling me that it collapsed.

BLOCK: Of course, this was nothing you could ever have possibly imagined.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I never thought it would happen.

BLOCK: That was Wayne Armstrong, who works at the Southeast BP gas station in Minneapolis, about 200 yards from where the I-35 West Bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed tonight.

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