MINNEAPOLIS The Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed during the evening rush hour Wednesday, dumping an estimated 50 vehicles into the water and onto the land below, creating a horrific scene of damage, fire, smoke, injuries, frantic rescuers and bloody, terrified motorists.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said at a news conference that six people had died.
As of 7:30 CDT, one construction worker was unaccounted for and three injured.
One death was reported by Dr. Joseph Clinton of the Hennepin County Medical Center. Clinton added that HCMC had admitted 22 serious but noncritical patients.
"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.
Many vehicles, including at least one semitractor 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.
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.
Workers had been repairing the 40-year-old bridge's surface as part of improvements along that stretch of the interstate.
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 Yankelevich, who is from California and survived the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
"I never expected anything like this to happen here," she said.
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 the bridge had collapse. They scrambled down the riverbank where, Flowers said, he saw cars floating in the river, and injured, bleeding, dazed people asking for help. He said he pulled a woman he presumed 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, Minn., when he heard "crunching."
"I saw this rolling of the bridge," he said. "It kept collapsing, down, down, down until it got to me."
Siddons' car dropped with the bridge, and the nose of his car rolled into the car in front of him and stopped. He got out of his car, 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. "Honestly, I honestly did. I thought it was over."
Dayna Wolfe, who lives near the Stone Arch Bridge, heard the collapse and came out on her bicycle to see what had happened. Wolfe, a physician and physical therapist, said she is 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.
"This is the kind of stuff you see with gigantic earthquakes," she said. "You don't see this kind of thing in Minnesota."
Ramon Houge, of St. Paul, Minn., was on his way home from work and was on the bridge when he heard a rumbling noise and cars in front of him began to go down. He said he was able to back up, turn around, and drive to safety before the collapsed portion of 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.
A school bus, filled with 60 children, ages 5 to 17, returning from a daycamp was on the bridge when it collapsed, 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 the rear door of the bus because the front door was wedged against a concrete traffic barrier. The kids were returning from a day of swimming at Bunker Beach, said Watkins. They are members of the Waite House summer program based in Minneapolis.
Marcelo Cruz, 26, of Crystal, Minn., 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 began to wave up and down. He steered into the concrete railing to stop himself 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 told him to get out. He said he needed help and the onlookers carried him out of his van in his wheelchair to safety on the riverbank. "I'm lucky to be alive," he said over and over again.
Gary Babineau, 24, of Blaine, Minn., was headed northbound on 35W when the bridge gave way.
"I can't believe I'm alive," he said. "I saw a couple of cars go down completely," he said. "It just totally collapsed."
There was a school bus next to him and there were a lot of kids inside, he said. A lot of them were bleeding and he helped them come up to safety. A lot of the children were taken away by ambulance, he said.
"My truck got cut into two pieces," said Babineau, who was bleeding from his nose.
Jay Danz, 45, of St. Paul, was driving to the Twins game and took W. River Parkway under the bridge just before it collapsed.
"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."
Danz said he was just five feet past the bridge when it collapsed behind him. Twisted green girders lay on the ground behind him.
He got out of his car and saw a school bus full of kids sitting askew on the collapsed road above him. He scrambled up a hill to help kids get off the bus. "Some kids had blood on their faces, but thank God, everybody could move," Danz said. "Everybody seemed OK."
There were cars behind him on the parkway, but 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, Minn., took 35W to the Twins game and said traffic suddenly "slammed to a stop" 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, Minn., 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; it made no sound whatsoever," 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 five feet from the edge."
Rogers tried to help some of the people in cars that had fallen into the river and 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."
Ryan Murphey, 30, Minneapolis, went to the scene to see if he could help out.
"It looked a terrorist attack, a complete catastrophe," Murphey said. "But everyone there was very calm and organized." He helped remove two victims from the east side of the bridge on stretchers, including a woman in her late 50s with a "bloody face."
Jane Marshall, 27, of Minneapolis, and her sister were behind Rogers on the highway and were 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 after the bridge collapsed. "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," Marshall said. "It just hit us we could have died."
The Twins decided to play Wednesday night's game, but only after the public address announcer alerted the crowd at 7:08 p.m. of the bridge's collapse. A moment of prayer followed. It was then announced that the game would go on so emergency crews could perform their duties without the added pressure of having 20,000 to 25,000 people scrambling in swarms from the Dome area.
However, the Twins postponed Thursday afternoon's game against Kansas City. Thursday evening's groundbreaking ceremony for the Twins' new ballpark also was postponed.
Amidst the rescue efforts, the Minnesota State Patrol said at 7 p.m. that the cause of the bridge collapse remained undetermined.
The arched bridge had risen about 64 feet above the river before its collapse at the end of rush hour, when cars were bumper to bumper in traffic.
Area law enforcement, including the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, had launched at least three boats to help with the rescues.
"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."
Paul McCabe, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Minneapolis, said the FBI responded to the collapsed 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."
An executive with the contractor, PCI, told the Star Tribune that, as of 7:30 p.m., one of its workers was unaccounted for.