Disaster on the Mississippi 'A Catastrophe of Historic Proportions'

At least nine are dead and 60 injured following the collapse on Wednesday evening of a major freeway bridge in the US city of Minneapolis. Officials say a structural failure likely caused the 40-year-old bridge to give way.

An eight-lane bridge on an Interstate highway collapsed in Minneapolis in the United States on Wednesday just after 6 p.m., during the peak of rush hour. Between 50 and 60 vehicles were on the bridge and dozens either plunged 18 meters (60 feet) into the Mississippi River or got crushed in a snare of concrete and metal. Officials said at least nine people died in the accident and "we expect that number to go up as well." Sixty people have been taken to the hospital and 20 are still reported missing.

"It will be a very tragic night when it is over," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback told reporters. And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said: "This is a catastrophe of historic proportions."

As the bridge buckled, drivers were stuck in a traffic jam. "There were two lanes of traffic, bumper to bumper, at the point of the collapse," Minneapolis Police Lt. Amelia Huffman said, according to AP. "At this point there is nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a structural collapse."

The local paper the Star Tribune described it as a "quiet traffic jam that quickly turned into freefall chaos with cars flying" along the busy I-35W freeway. A number of eyewitnesses described the experience as being "like an earthquake."

CNN showed dramatic images of cars that had plunged from the bridge and autos in various states of wreckage. They included a school bus carrying 60 children returning from a day camp swimming trip that fell with the bridge but landed safely, missing the water. The children were rescued, but 10 were taken to the hospital for treatment.

Berndt Toivonen, 51, who was driving over the bridge as it collapsed, told the local Star Tribune newspaper: "The bridge started to buckle. It went up and came down. I thought I was going to die."

Another eyewitness, Kevin Kopelki, who was rescued by another driver when his car fell and began to fill with water, told the paper: "It was like something out of a movie. The bridge was packed. It was the height of rush hour."

Officials said the search operation, which included rescue boats and divers, had to be suspended on Wednesday around midnight because it became too dangerous to shift through the rubble in the moving river. They also said they had little hope of finding more survivors in the river. Meanwhile, boat traffic on the waterway, a major American inland shipping lane, was closed in the areas near the disaster, the Coast Guard reported.

The 1,000-foot, steel-truss structure bridge was last inspected in 2005 and 2006 by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and no structural defects were found, according to Gov. Pawlenty. It is still unclear what caused the 40-year-old bridge to collapse, but most evidence is pointing to structural failure.

The US Department of Homeland Security issued a statement Wednesday saying no signs had been found to indicate a terrorist attack had been involved. The National Transportation Safety Board also said it would send a team of investigators to the site.



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