MINNEAPOLIS -- The Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed during the evening rush hour yesterday, dumping an estimated 50 vehicles into the water and onto the land below and creating a horrific scene of damage, fire, smoke, injuries, frantic rescuers and bloody, terrified motorists.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said at a mid-evening news conference that six people had died.
One death was reported by Dr. Joseph Clinton of the Hennepin County Medical Center. He added that the medical center had admitted 22 serious but noncritical patients. One construction worker was unaccounted for, and three were injured.
"There were two lanes of traffic, bumper to bumper, at the point of the collapse. Those cars did go into the river," Minneapolis Police Lt. Amelia Huffman. "At this point, there is nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a structural collapse."
"It's obviously a catastrophe," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "We want to make sure we can do all we can to help those in need. Our thoughts and prayers" are with the families of all the victims, he said.
Many vehicles, including at least one tractor trailer, were on fire. People were also reportedly floundering in the river. Rescuers rushed to help people escape cars trapped in the V where the bridge had caved in. Area law enforcement, including the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, launched at least three boats to help with rescues.
The arched bridge, a major link between Minneapolis and St. Paul, had risen about 64 feet above the river before its collapse.
The crumpled wreckage of the bridge lay on the east bank of the river, and a huge section of concrete roadway lay on the west bank. Down below in the river gorge, rescue workers scrambled to help people on the roadway that now lay in the gorge. Fire and black smoke rose from the wreckage.
Memorial Blood Centers and the American Red Cross put out immediate calls for blood donors.
Amid rescue efforts, the Minnesota State Patrol said at 7 p.m. that the cause of the bridge collapse remained undetermined. Paul McCabe, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, said agents responded to the bridge to offer assistance and conduct any investigation that proves necessary. But he said there was "no reason at this time to believe there's any nexus to terrorism."
Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke also said the collapse did not appear to be terrorism-related.
Workers had been repairing the 40-year-old bridge's surface as part of improvements along that stretch of the interstate. An executive with the contractor, PCI of St. Michael, told the Star Tribune that, as of 7:30 p.m., one of its workers was unaccounted for.
Catherine Yankelevich, 29, was on the bridge when "it started shaking, cars started flying, and I was falling and saw the water," she said. Her car was in the river when she climbed out the driver's side window and swam to shore uninjured.
"It seemed like a movie; it was pretty scary," said Ms. Yankelevich, who is from California and survived the 1994 Northridge earthquake. "I never expected anything like this to happen here," she said.
'I thought I was going to die'
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," he said. "It went up, and it came down. I thought I was gonna die."
Charles Flowers, 36, of Dewy Rose, Ga., was waiting at Metal Matic to pick up a load of tubing to haul to Mexico when he and several others felt the ground shake, ran from the building and saw that the bridge had collapsed. They scrambled down the riverbank where, Mr. Flowers said, he saw cars floating in the river, and injured, bleeding and dazed people asking for help. He pulled a woman he presumed to be dead from the water. "I never thought I'd see anything like this," he said.
Four cars were submerged in the river upstream of the bridge, and a rescue worker waded in the water searching for survivors. On the east bank, only a small section of the bridge support was still standing, and it was creaking as rescue workers carried out the injured.
People nearby said they heard a sound like an earthquake or a plane crash, and the collapse set off alarms in the nearby Stone Arch Apartments.
Peter Siddons, a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, was heading north over the bridge toward his home in White Bear Lake when he heard a "crunching" sound. "I saw this rolling of the bridge," he said. "It kept collapsing -- down, down, down --until it got to me."
Mr. Siddons' car dropped with the bridge, and its nose rolled into the car in front of him and stopped. He got out, jumped over the crevice between the highway lanes and crawled up the steeply tilted section of bridge to land, where he jumped to the ground. "I thought I was dead," he said. "I honestly did. I thought it was over."
Dr. Dayna Wolfe, who lives near the Stone Arch Bridge, heard the collapse and came out on her bicycle to see what had happened.
Worse than earthquakes
Dr. Wolfe, a physician and physical therapist, said she was certain that many people had been killed or were trapped in their cars. She said the scene was worse than any of the many earthquakes she had survived in California.
Ramon Houge of St. Paul was on his way home from work and on the bridge when he heard a rumbling noise and cars in front of him began to go down. He said those cars that could backed up to a construction zone, and he was finally able to turn around and drive off the bridge. "It didn't seem like it was real," he said.
Traffic was bumper to bumper, and hundreds of people would have been involved, he said, adding that he saw kids get off a crashed bus on the bridge with blood on their faces.
School bus with 60 children
The school bus, filled with 60 children, ages 5 to 17, returning from a daycamp, was on the bridge at the moment it fell, injuring at least two children and two adults seriously, according to one of the children.
"We collapsed," said Ryan Watkins. He said the bus bounced twice and then stopped. He and others escaped out its rear door because the front one was wedged against a concrete traffic barrier. The children were returning from a day of swimming at Bunker Beach, he said, and are members of the Waite House summer program based in Minneapolis.
Marcelo Cruz, 26, of Crystal, who has used a wheelchair since being paralyzed in a shooting in South Carolina several years ago, was driving his van across the bridge toward downtown when he felt it begin to wave up and down. He steered into the concrete railing to keep from driving into the river and saw many cars on the bridge fall into the water.
His van came to rest steeply inclined toward the river, and several onlookers ran and urged him to get out. He said he needed help, and onlookers carried him in his wheelchair to safety on the riverbank. "I'm lucky to be alive," he said over and over.
Gary Babineau, 24, of Blaine was headed northbound on 35W when the bridge gave way. The school bus was next to him with lots of kids inside, he said. Many of them were bleeding, and he helped some to safety. He said many children were taken away by ambulance.
"My truck got cut into two pieces," said Mr. Babineau, whose nose was bleeding.
Under bridge before it fell
Jay Danz, 45, of St. Paul was driving to the Twins game and took West River Parkway under the bridge just before its collapse. "I heard it creaking and making all sorts of noise it shouldn't make," he said. "And then the bridge just started to fall apart." He said he was just five feet beyond the bridge when it collapsed, leaving twisted green girders on the ground behind him.
Mr. Danz got out of his car and saw the school bus sitting askew on the collapsed road above him, so he scrambled up a hill to help the kids get off. "Some kids had blood on their faces, but thank God, everybody could move," he said. "Everybody seemed OK."
There were cars behind him on River Parkway, but Mr. Danz said they were far enough behind that he didn't think they were under the bridge when it fell.
John Joachim, of Taylors Falls took 35W to the Twins game and said traffic suddenly "slammed to a stop" as he neared University Avenue. "I didn't know what was going on, but a huge cloud of dust rose in front of us," he said.
Louis Rogers, 28, of Roseville was driving home from work, listening to music in his Chevy Blazer, when the bridge gave way just feet in front of him. "It just disappeared," he said. "It was pretty much like a thud -- not too loud of a thud. The next thing I know, cars were dropping, and there was smoke. My car was no more than 5 feet from the edge."
He tried to help some people in cars that had fallen into the river or stopped on the bridge. "I saw a lady in a car, and I screamed, but I got no response," he said. "I grabbed my bag and started signaling cars to get out of there."
Like a terrorist attack
Ryan Murphey, 30, Minneapolis, went to the scene to see if he could help out. "It looked like a terrorist attack -- a complete catastrophe," he said. "But everyone there was very calm and organized." He helped remove two victims on stretchers from the bridge's east side, including a woman in her late 50s with a "bloody face."
Jane Marshall, 27, of Minneapolis and her sister were behind Mr. Rogers on the highway and were also on their way to the Twins game. They were driving toward the bridge when it collapsed. "I still can't believe it," she said an hour afterward. "We were so close. If we hadn't stopped to get gas, it might have been us there."
The two called their parents right away to let them know they were OK. "We're not sure if we're going to the game or not," Ms. Marshall said. "It just hit us: We could have died."
The Twins decided to play last night's game, but only after the public address announcer alerted the crowd at 7:08 p.m. of the bridge collapse. A moment of prayer followed. It was then announced that the game would go on so that emergency crews could perform their duties without added pressure from 20,000 to 25,000 fans scrambling from the Dome area.
But the Twins postponed this afternoon's game against Kansas City. This evening's groundbreaking ceremony for the Twins' new ballpark also was postponed.
"Unbelievable," said Audrey Glassman of Minneapolis, who left her work shift at nearby Spoonriver restaurant to survey the scene. "You'll never cross a bridge again without thinking about this."