STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Rescue workers in Minneapolis resumed a grim task at daybreak today. They're searching for victims of last night's bridge collapse. It was the Interstate 35 Bridge, a major link between Minneapolis and St. Paul. And it failed during the evening rush. At least seven people are confirmed dead and dozens are injured or missing.
Minnesota Public Radio's Lorna Benson reports.
LORNA BENSON: The concrete and steel bridge buckled suddenly at the height of rush hour traffic. Officials still don't know how many cars were on the bridge at that time, but traffic was bumper to bumper. They estimate there were at least 50 vehicles and probably many more.
Jamie Winegar's was one of them. The Houston mother was in Minneapolis to help her daughter move to college. They had just returned from a shopping trip with three other family members when the bridge gave way beneath them.
Ms. JAMIE WINEGAR (Witness): All I remember feeling is just feeling this, boom, boom, and we just kept - and my husband was saying, are you all - all right? Are you all right? Because it - I think it fell four times. So we know we fell, - I don't know, 40 feet. We don't know how far we fell.
BENSON: The Winegar's vehicle landed on another car and came to rest on concrete, narrowly avoiding falling into the Mississippi River.
Ms. WINEGAR: We all had our seatbelts on. We had five people in the car. We felt so lucky, because you didn't feel like you were going to live through it.
BENSON: Melissa Hughes was also on the bridge. She says she wasn't sure what was happening at first. She says she noticed objects in the air, and she knew they didn't belong there.
Ms. MELISSA HUGHES (Witness): I swear I saw construction workers suspended in the air. And just kind of that feeling, that freefall feeling, it felt like we did that twice. And I heard a loud - at that time I just stomped on the brake and held my steering wheel, and then heard a loud smash and saw my back window break.
BENSON: A school bus filled with children also tumbled down the embankment as the bridge buckled, but none of the children were seriously injured.
The bridge spans nearly 2,000 feet. The section that fell into the river is about 500 feet long. Sections of the pavement with crushed vehicles are still visible above the surface of the water.
Rescue workers scrambled in boats to reach those victims. Dozens who survived the fall were rushed to nearby hospitals.
In a news conference soon after the collapse, Governor Tim Pawlenty called it a catastrophe of historic proportions for the state. He says the bridge was inspected in 2005 and 2006 by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. And that inspection found no structural deficiencies with the bridge, just some cosmetic and minor repair items. In fact, the bridge was undergoing repair work at the time of the accident. Construction crews were resurfacing it.
While an exact cause has not yet been pinpointed, Homeland Security officials say there's nothing to suggest terrorism in the collapse.
The accident drew thousands of onlookers who had lined the banks of the river to watch the rescue effort. University of Minnesota student Sara Decker handed out water to rescue workers and observers. She said it was the only thing she could think to do. Decker says she had been in a car waiting to cross the bridge when the accident happened.
Ms. SARAH DECKER (Witness, Collapsed Minneapolis Bridge): All I can do is thank God that, you know, I'm safe. You never think something like this is going to happen. And so I just praise God that there's so many people here that are helping and doing what they can.
BENSON: The Minneapolis fire chief called off the rescue effort once it became dark. He said it was too dangerous to send rescue workers and divers into the river to look for victims.
The bridge collapse presents a major traffic challenge to already congested Twin City's freeways. It also disrupts barge traffic on the river, as huge chunks of concrete and rebar and numerous vehicles remain underwater.
For NPR News, I'm Lorna Benson in Minneapolis.