Cleanup Begins at Minneapolis' Collapsed Bridge

Divers search the muddy Mississippi River, looking for victims of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. And, in a new phase of the recovery effort, construction crews are hauling in heavy equipment to start the long and tedious cleanup that is expected to take months and cost about $15 million.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

Divers are still searching the muddy Mississippi River, looking for those lost when the interstate bridge in Minneapolis collapsed last week.

Today marks a new phase of the recovery effort. Construction crews are hauling in heavy equipments to start the long and tedious clean-up process. They predict it will take months and cost something like $15 million.

NPR's Rachel Martin has this update on that story.

RACHEL MARTIN: Think about it - a bridge carrying eight lanes of traffic collapsed and literally fell into the Mississippi River. Even when you say it, it sounds absurdly catastrophic. And it was. Five people died, eight are still missing. And a major traffic thoroughfare is down.

Mr. BOB McFARLAND (Assistant Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Transportation): If you can find alternative routes, of course if you can car pool, if you're a normal user of this route and you can telecommute, that would be greatly appreciated.

MARTIN: Bob McFarland is with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. He talked with reporters yesterday about contingency traffic plans, but more importantly about the massive cleanup effort that's going to get underway.

Crews are expected to spend most of this week moving in heavy equipment, including several cranes and four barges. They'll start by moving out the rubble and abandoned cars. But Minnesota officials keep saying over and over that this is still a rescue and recovery mission.

Again, Bob McFarland.

Mr. McFARLAND: The first phase of the debris removal is slow. It is going to be very deliberate. And it is going to be very respectful of the task that still lies ahead in finding those who are missing.

MARTIN: As the recovery effort moves forward, so does the investigation into what caused the bridge to buckle. Investigators say they plan to fly around the disaster site in a helicopter equipped with a high-resolution camera, and they're using sophisticated computer models to recreate the bridge collapse, which may reveal clues about how it happened.

Meanwhile, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has called the federal government for help in the underwater effort. The FBI search and underwater recovery team is on its way to Minneapolis. Stanek has also asked for help from the U.S. Navy. Till then his recovery teams are relying heavily on sonar cameras.

Sheriff RICHARD STANEK (Hennepin County, Minnesota): The cameras are a lot safer than using a diver at this point. If we find something, we'll send a diver in, if safe, to check it out. Or we'll have to wait until some of the debris removal takes place. That's why I requested these two additional assets that really I don't have available to me here within the state of Minnesota.

MARTIN: And between press conferences and investigation updates, Minneapolis took a moment to reflect.

(Soundbite of church service)

MARTIN: More than a thousand people gathered for an interfaith service at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. The memorial started with a candle-lit procession, then Governor Tim Pawlenty gave the opening remarks.

Governor TIM PAWLENTY (Republican, Minnesota): It takes a lot of faith to live in a world where tragedy, accidents, illness and injustice do their worse to the people we love. But we're here to affirm in prayer our hope of comfort for the grieving, help for the injured, and repair and recovery for our city and state.

MARTIN: There were a lot of prayers from different religious leaders, a lot of talk about rebuilding and restoration, but there were also hints of anxiety and frustration.

Reverend PEG CHEMBERLIN (Executive Director, Minnesota Council of Churches): We come in tears, in grief and fear, with uncertainty about the structures around us.

MARTIN: Reverend Peg Chemberlin is the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches.

Rev. CHEMBERLIN: As we seek someone to blame or something to blame, let us together tonight commit ourselves to a time of profound patience for full accountability for the restoration of the public trust, patience for the healing, patience in the waiting, patience.

MARTIN: That's something Minnesotans pride themselves on. But as investigators try to piece together what happened and construction crews begin the slow process of putting I-35 back together again, that Minnesota patience will surely be tested.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Minneapolis.

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