River's Currents Hamper Recovery in Minneapolis

Recovery efforts from the Mississippi River continue after the collapse of the Interstate-35 W bridge in Minneapolis. The Army Corps of Engineers had lowered the river's level by about a foot to assist in those recovery efforts but currents are making it difficult.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

It's daylight now in Minneapolis, and that means recovery efforts are continuing. Divers will try to reach vehicles that plunged into the Mississippi River when an interstate bridge collapsed on Wednesday. The official death toll now stands at five, but more people are missing. To assist in recovery, the Army Corps of Engineers lowered the river's level by about a foot, but that has caused its own set of problems.

NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Minneapolis, not far from the collapsed bridge, and joins us now. Good morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Jason, tell us about the recovery efforts. So far, I know currents, strong currents in the Mississippi have made it really difficult.

BEAUBIEN: That's true. One of the real problems that they're having here is that much of this wreckage is in the river, and the currents in the water are pulling at this big piece of cement that's down there. And some of this roadway is actually broken up. And so as the current pulls on it, divers are actually getting into some danger down there and they keep pulling them out. So this is really slowing down the recovery effort.

In addition, you've got big pieces of concrete that are just hanging up there, steal beams, a lot of rebar. So the recovery effort has really been hampered by the dangerous situation of this wreckage that's in a very fairly precarious situation.

MONTAGNE: And what about the investigation into what caused the collapse?

BEAUBIEN: The National Transportation Safety Board flew in yesterday. They brought in a team. They say that that team is almost entirely here at this point. They say things are going extremely well for only having been here for a day. In addition, you've got an independent investigation that was ordered by the governor.

The NTSB is going to be really trying to find what exactly happened that caused this 35-W Bridge to collapse. They're looking at such things as corroded bearings, small stress fractures. And they've been pulling out some evidence that, as far back as 1990, this bridge was labeled structurally deficient because of some corrosion in some of those bearings and some small stress fractures, which they didn't think were a big problem. But they're trying to find out whether those issues that were identified early on were what finally caused this to collapse.

MONTAGNE: Now, this was, as we're now all learning, a very heavily used bridge. And in fact, on the day of the collapse, it was bumper-to-bumper traffic. What is the impact there, on this second day of commuting, on traffic in Minneapolis?

BEAUBIEN: Well, I have to say today, it's Friday morning, in the middle of summer. It's a nice day. I think people who can avoid going into downtown are doing so. Traffic is fairly light on the other bridges that - where traffic is being routed onto. That said, yesterday afternoon, rush hour traffic was really pretty horrendous on those bridges in moving out of downtown. There were police in the streets directing traffic. This is a major artery between St. Paul and Minneapolis, and it's an eight-lane freeway and there's huge amount of traffic that's normally being taken up by that. So people are being routed down onto other routes.

The mayor is talking about - this bridge is not going to be rebuilt for a very long time and the city is going to have to adjust to that. He's talking about trying to put in some roadways that are currently with stop signs, making those throughways, other things like that to essentially deal with the fact that this major piece of infrastructure is gone and isn't going to come back soon.

MONTAGNE: And the people there in Minneapolis, how are they coping with the aftermath of this disaster? What is the mood like there in the city?

BEAUBIEN: Well, certainly there's still a lot of shock and sadness. Most people say that they have traveled over that bridge at one point in time; some people are traveling on it every day. And there's also some anger that a bridge like this could just, all of a sudden, collapse into the Mississippi River, a bridge that had been inspected on a regular basis.

But I have to say that, overall, what I'm hearing from most people is that they seem to feel that this event really brought out the best in people, that people who were sort of trapped in their cars in the middle of an ordinary commute, locked out from people around them, moments later had plunged to the bottom of this ravine where the Mississippi River is and were getting out and helping each other, and rescue workers who threw off their police gun belts and went down there to try to pull people out. That's what I'm hearing from most people, that they feel like this event really brought out the best in people in Minnesota.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jason Beaubien near the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis. Thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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