Policeman's Bridge-Rescue Efforts Lauded Police Sgt. E.T. Nelson was one of the first Minneapolis policeman to arrive at the collapsed I-35 W bridge. His boss calls him a hero, but Sgt. Nelson says he was just doing his job.
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Hear Police Sgt. E.T. Nelson, one of the first Minneapolis policeman to arrive at the collapsed bridge

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Policeman's Bridge-Rescue Efforts Lauded

Hear Police Sgt. E.T. Nelson, one of the first Minneapolis policeman to arrive at the collapsed bridge

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  • Transcript

ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, what's it like to search the murky waters of the Mississippi River? We'll have an interview with the diver coming up.

COHEN: But first an update on the recovery efforts at the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Today police confirmed a fifth death and said eight others remain missing. That's down from estimates made last night of as many as 30 people missing. At a news briefing this morning, officials said rescue workers are searching in an increasingly dangerous condition.

CHADWICK: One of the first rescue workers on the scene this week was Minneapolis Police Sergeant E.T. Nelson. His boss calls him a hero. Sergeant Nelson says he was just doing his job.

Sergeant E.T. NELSON (Minneapolis Police Department): You have a job to do. You train to do this job. And when you encounter a situation like that, that's what it's all about. You just do it.

COHEN: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Minneapolis and he brings us this story.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Sergeant Ed Nelson is a tall, white-haired mustached Minnesotan. He arrived at the south side of the collapsed 35W bridge three or four minutes after the first 911 call came in. And he says what he encountered was utter chaos.

Sgt. NELSON: And when we arrived at that location, it was nothing but twisted metal, overhanging concrete. You could hear the bridge creaking. You could hear the rivets popping. And you heard the people on a span that was actually in the water crying for help.

BEAUBIEN: Sergeant Nelson and his partner, Carl Olson(ph), found a broken steel beam on which they thought they could reach the large section of the bridge that had fallen in to the Mississippi River. They were afraid, though, that if they fell themselves into the water, they're gun belts would weigh them down. So the two officers left their weapons and radios on the bank and shimmied out on the beam to the wreckage.

Sgt. NELSON: The first vehicle we came up on was completely submerged, crushed. And I spoke with a gentleman there. I asked him if he saw anybody get out of that vehicle. He looked at me, said that was me.

BEAUBIEN: The two officers triaged the survivors. Those who were are able to walk on their own were shepherd to rescue boats. The men called in emergency crews for victims of spinal injuries who had to be carried out on stretchers. Many of these people had just fallen nearly 60 feet. The officers were surprised to find that most had only minor injuries. But Sergeant Nelson says many were dazed, disoriented and obviously terrified.

Nelson's boss, Police Chief Tim Dolan, says the officers who rushed to the scene of the collapse took an incredible risk. Dolan, who calls Nelson by his initials, E.T., says the concrete and steel of the wreckage could have collapsed on them.

Police Chief TIM DOLAN (Minneapolis Police Department): That slab of concrete that E.T. and the others went and climbed under - I mean there's - it's hanging there. There's a bus on it. There's vehicles on it. And it looks like it's going to fall at any time. And like he said, you could hear rivets popping and so forth - shouldn't have been doing that, except they felt like they had to do that. And that's not only courageous, but it's exceptional.

BEAUBIEN: Sergeant Nelson says that we he and his partner did on Wednesday night was no more important than the work of the officers who were directing traffic away from the crash scene.

Sgt. NELSON: We made sure everybody was off that span and we left on the last boat.

BEAUBIEN: Despite downplaying his role, Sergeant Nelson notes that what he saw on Wednesday night was unlike anything he'd witnessed in his 25 years of police work.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Minneapolis.

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