updated – death toll reduced to 4 but expected to rise as bodies are recovered 

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By Paul Levy, Star Tribune

Last update: August 02, 2007 – 5:14 AM

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Melissa Hughes clutches a child near the scene of the I-35W bridge collapse; Melissa was driving the red car in the background.

Jerry Holt , Star Tribune

Rescue workers prepared to search a submerged vehicle Rescue workers prepared to search a submerged vehicle in the Mississippi River that had been on the Interstate 35W bridge when it collapsed just after 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

Jeff Wheeler , Star Tribune

7bridgejw.112368.jpg The wreckage on the west end of the bridge.

Jeff Wheeler , Star Tribune

Emergency crews are waiting for daylight to resume their recovery and clean up efforts at the scene of the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed during rush hour Wednesday evening.

The 1,907-foot bridge fell into the Mississippi River and onto roadways below. The span was packed with rush hour traffic, and dozens of vehicles fell with the bridge leaving scores of dazed commuters scrambling for their lives.

Nine people were confirmed dead as of 4 a.m. today. Sixty were taken to hospitals and 20 people were still missing this morning. Authorities said they expected the death toll to rise.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek told the Associated Press at about 1 a.m. today that all search efforts had been called off for the night and that searchers did not expect to find any survivors.

“It’s dark, it’s not safe with the currents in the water and the concrete and rebar,” he said. “At this point it is a recovery effort.”

Officials will hold at least three news conferences this morning.

*Mayor R.T. Rybak was to meet with reporters at a news conference at 6 a.m.

*Police, fire and emergency officials will give updates at 7:15 a.m.

*A general media update will be held at 7:30 a.m.

Wednesday night, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the bridge collapse “is a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota.”

Between 50 and 60 vehicles were on the bridge when it went down shortly after 6 p.m., authorities said. Legions of rescue workers and volunteers swarmed to the scene and spent hours sifting through the wreckage in a frantic search for survivors.

By late in the evening, officials said efforts at the Mississippi had switched from rescue to recovery.

Jay Danz, 45, of St. Paul, was on his way to the Metrodome to watch the Twins play Kansas City and had driven under W. River Parkway, beneath the interstate bridge, seconds before it fell.

“I heard it creaking and making all sorts of noises it shouldn’t make,” Danz said. “And then the bridge just started to fall apart.”

In addition to the cars that went into the water, a school bus carrying about 60 Minneapolis children fell from the bridge, landing on all four of its tires and missing the water as it came to rest near the parkway.

Several of the children and at least two adults were treated for injuries after the group escaped through the back door of the bus.

“Some kids had blood on their faces, but thank God everybody could move,” Danz said.

The cause of the collapse wasn’t known in the hours afterward. It’s too soon to know what happened, said Catherine E. Wolfgram French, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota.

“Things can happen with temperature, and with construction, or a lot of other confounding factors,” French said.

This was a 40-year-old truss bridge, and French did say that some early truss bridges don’t have as many structural redundancies — backups to carry the loads — as is now considered desirable.

Another engineer, Michael Ramerth, a principal at MBJ Consulting Structural Engineers in Minneapolis, said in the search for answers “I would start at the foundations.”

On a typical weekday, more than 100,000 cars use the bridge.

Berndt Toivonen, 51, of Minneapolis, was on his way home from a painting job when the bridge collapsed beneath his car.

“The bridge started to buckle,” Toivonen said. “It went up and came down. I thought I was going to die.”

Bumper-to-bumper traffic

What people in the area of the collapse experienced or saw at about 6:05 p.m. unfolded as motorists crawled bumper to bumper across I-35W toward the end of rush hour.

Those on the bridge felt buckling and swaying and heard a crunching.

Then came the unthinkable: The 40-year-old bridge collapsed, dumping vehicles into the water and onto land below. That was followed by scenes of frantic, bloodied motorists and rescuers who converged on the scene.

Many vehicles, including at least one semitrailer, were on fire. People were reported to be floundering in the river. Rescuers rushed to help people escape cars trapped in the V-shaped hollow where the bridge had caved in.

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