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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Recovery Effort Continues Following Minnesota Bridge Collapse; How Safe Are America's Bridges?
Aired August 2, 2007 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: It's hard to say good evening when it is plainly not.
The sun has just gone down here on a truly grim day. I want to show you what it looks like. Right now, over my shoulder, just a few blocks away, is what remains of the bridge. That's a live picture there. On the left-hand part of the screen, you may be able to see a black vehicle with a red X on it, clearly, one of the vehicles that has been searched.
There are vehicles tossed all about, vehicles still in the water. There is still much work to be done -- no survivors rescued today, though, in all honesty, the likelihood gets slimmer with each passing moment. Nor were any bodies recovered, at least as far as authorities are saying or that we have been able to find out.
But everyone is bracing for that awful moment when they are, when the river and the rubble start giving back what they have taken.
This is how it happened as it happened. You can see, it took just a few seconds for a 500-foot chunk of the 35-W bridge to drop 64 meet into the Mississippi or on the riverbank. We saw this security camera video for the first time earlier today.
The question now is, why? And that covers a lot of ground. What triggered the collapse? Why did it happen? Why such a chain reaction, with one section pulling the next down? Was the bridge weakened by construction or by neglect? Are thousands of aging bridges across the country safe?
We will look at all that, as we bring you the remarkable stories that have been coming to light all day today. There's a lot to talk about in the two hours ahead.
I want to show you a picture, though, that tells one of those stories. Look closely. There's not a lot to say or a lot that we know about this picture, except we know this woman is alive and grateful. And, thankfully, tonight, there are other pictures like it.
Sadly, though, they are not the only stories. Police chief Tim Dolan says emergency workers came upon people pinned beneath the concrete and steel, but they were still alive. And they had one request, he says. They requested to find their loved ones and say goodbye for them.
We begin with how we got to this awful point, starting just moments before the bridge came down.
COOPER (voice-over): Six o'clock on Wednesday evening, rush hour in Minneapolis -- cars, trucks, buses, crawl across the I-35-W bridge, bumper-to-bumper. Just minutes later, that slow traffic comes to a tragic halt.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It just completely gave out. The bridge started shaking. And then it was a complete freefall.
COOPER: At 6:05, the bridge began to buckle. Then it collapsed, sending dozens of cars and the people in them plummeting into the Mississippi River 60 feet below. This video of those terrifying moments shows it took only four seconds.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Half of it is in the Mississippi River. Half of it is on the ground. And I fell probably about 30, 40 feet, landed on the shore of the Mississippi. I'm so lucky to be alive. On the way down, I -- I thought I was dead. I literally thought I was dead.
COOPER: At first, witnesses can only stand by, stunned at the chilling scene before them. A truck bursts into flames. A school bus full of children sits perilously at the edge of the fractured bridge.
Some call love ones to tell them what they were seeing. You can hear the panic in their voices.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
KALEIGH SWIFT, BRIDGE COLLAPSE SURVIVOR: Momma, the bridge broke when we were crossing it. Everybody -- everybody is scared and crying. Are you there, momma? Momma, are you there?
(END AUDIO CLIP)
COOPER: Others described a deathly silence immediately after the deafening sound of the bridge coming down.
JOE COSTELLO, EYEWITNESS: After it had collapsed, it was early quiet for at least five minutes, probably even more, before we even heard a siren in the distance.
COOPER: It was 6:08 when rescue workers began arriving. Police, divers, firefighters got to work trying to find survivors and the bodies of victims.
TIM DOLAN, MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, POLICE CHIEF: We know of several people who are pinned or trapped and were, at the time when we left them, just deceased.
There is an individual case where an individual was severely -- obviously, severely injured, and was talking to medical personnel, and was able to say his goodbyes to his family. And then he passed on.
COOPER: Nine fifteen p.m., Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak reports six people dead. That number would later be raised to seven, then lowered to four. Everyone, however, agreed on one thing. With dozens of cars still sitting at the bottom of the river, the number of dead would climb.
As darkness fell, the work was halted for the night. And, at 10:24, officials said the words families of the missing feared most.
KRISTI ROLLWAGEN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS: At this time, we are still in a rescue operation that is transitioning to a recovery effort.
COOPER: Hope was dwindling that anyone else would be pulled from the river alive. At 6:00 this morning, 12 hours after the collapse of the I-35-W bridge, crews were back, their job now to identify cars that had fallen into the river, marking down license plate numbers, searching for the missing.
Investigators are there, too, trying to figure what caused the massive bridge to crumble, searching for answers, studying the safety of the city's other bridges, as Minneapolis mourns its dead and thanks its heroes.
GOV. TIM PAWLENTY (R), MINNESOTA: We also see goodness in bystanders and good samaritans who weren't wearing a uniform, but ran to the problem, ran to the crisis, ran to the challenge and the danger to be helpful, another reflection of Minnesotans' goodness. And, so, it's in this horror and in this tragedy, you see a silver lining of the goodness of the people of Minnesota.
COOPER: So many people in this city reaching out, trying to help one another.
Just to bring you up to the moment, the late reports now put the number of unaccounted for at eight. That's down from 30. That's either very good news -- more people thought to be missing weren't actually missing -- or terrible news -- more bodies have been identified. No one yet is saying.
Bottom line, though, underwater recovery work came to a stop today when river currents simply became too dangerous to operate in.
Also, NTSB investigators have been making their way here. President Bush has promised federal aid. The Department of Transportation today advised all state governments to inspect similar bridges in their states. And that number, by the way, totals about 750.
As you might imagine, the main focus for tonight and for the days and weeks ahead will be this one: a bridge that once carried 141,000 cars and trucks every day, but also carried with it a history of problems.
360's Randi Kaye, tonight, is "Keeping Them Honest."
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It may take years for investigators to figure out what brought this bridge down. "Keeping Them Honest," we wanted to know, whatever it was, could it have been prevented?
After all, two reports in the last six years noted this bridge had structural problems.
(on camera): A lot of people watching this, though, would say, how can a bridge that has been rated as structurally deficient still be in business? Help them understand.
DICK STEHLY, CIVIL ENGINEER: That's the maddening part of this. That's the one part of this that's extremely troubling.
KAYE: In 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Bridge Inventory Database called the bridge structurally deficient and possibly in need of replacement.
This same report shows, on a scale of one to nine, the bridge scored a four in overall structural quality. So, what did Minnesota's Department of Transportation, Mn/DOT, do about it?
DAN DORGAN, MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: The outcome of that was two choices for Mn/DOT. One was adding plates to strengthen the bridge. The other was to do in-depth inspection of the areas that were thought to be the most susceptible and to verify that no cracks existed in those areas. And we chose the inspection route.
KAYE (on camera): And there's more. The bridge scored just a 50 rating out of 120 overall, which meant replacement may have been in order.
So, why was the state of Minnesota, all the way up to the governor's office, telling us this bridge was safe? Governor Tim Pawlenty said the bridge got a clean bill of health in 2005 and 2006. Even the U.S. Department of Transportation is defending Mn/DOT.
MARY PETERS, U.S. SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: It was no means an indication that this bridge was not safe. None of those ratings indicated that there was -- there was any kind of danger here. It simply says, we need to schedule this bridge for rehabilitation.
KAYE (voice-over): Four years before that report, in 2001, University of Minnesota researchers published this report: "Fatigue Evaluation of the Deck Truss of Bridge 9340." They found: "The bridge's deck truss system has not experienced fatigue cracking, but it has many poor fatigue details on the main truss and the floor truss system. If one member were severed by a fatigue crack, that plane of the main truss would theoretically collapse," just like what happened Wednesday.
Yet, the report concluded, "Fatigue cracking is not expected during the remaining useful life of the bridge."
Again, Mn/DOT inspected the bridge, which 141,000 people use daily.
DORGAN: At the time, we thought that the inspections and the information we had were adequate and satisfactory that we were comfortable the bridge was fit for service. And, once again, of course, we -- we found that to be untrue.
KAYE: Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will be studying these reports as they try to figure out what went wrong here.
Civil engineer Dick Stehly says, fatigue cracking, even corrosion, are easy to miss.
STEHLY: Cracking may be painted over, and you can't see cracks. In reinforced concrete, there can be some corrosion that wouldn't you see because it's underneath.
KAYE: Stehly isn't pointing fingers at Mn/DOT, but at the system overall. The time has come, he says, to raise the bar for safety.
STEHLY: It's not acceptable to have a bridge fall down. So, yes, it must. And the engineering community and the transportation community has let the public down. People have been killed because of this -- this catastrophic failure. We can't let it happen again.
COOPER: Randi Kaye joins us now.
Is anything being done about this system failure?
KAYE: Well, Anderson, a lot of people want change. They all say they want change, but there really isn't a plan yet in place.
But it is early. The governor, though, has called for a full review of whatever it is that happened here. But what's interesting is that Mn/DOT is downplaying this issue. Today, they came out saying that, of the 13,000 bridges here in Minnesota with a 20-foot span or more, more than 1,100 of them are actually considered structurally deficient. That's about 8 percent of the state's bridges.
So, they're trying to show that this isn't the only bridge and this is actually more common that we might think, which isn't necessarily...
COOPER: That's actually worrying, yes.
KAYE: ... a good thing.
COOPER: Yes. That's probably going to worry a lot more people.
KAYE: Mm-hmm. COOPER: Randi, appreciate that.
We spent much of last night talking on the phone with people. We are grateful that they took the time, especially the survivors. It is hard to imagine going through all that and still wanting to spend time on the phone with a stranger. But people do. They have stories to tell.
And we're all a little amazed at some of them, especially this one.
360's Gary Tuchman spent the day with a man who has now cheated death twice in a lifetime.
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Among the vehicles remaining on the wreckage of the destroyed Minneapolis bridge is this blue minivan. Its driver slammed on the brakes as the roadway collapsed. But the van wasn't going to stop in time.
So, the driver, Marcelo Cruz, took evasive action.
(on camera): And, in the last second, you swerved into the wall.
MARCELO CRUZ, BRIDGE COLLAPSE SURVIVOR: Yes. That's what I did.
TUCHMAN: And it saved your life.
M. CRUZ: Yes.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): His close call, harrowing. But made even more incredible because Marcelo Cruz is a paraplegic. He was by himself in the van and couldn't get out as the bridge crumbled and as fire started to rage.
(on camera): How many cars did you see go in the water?
M. CRUZ: Twenty, something like that.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): Marcelo has a special hand brake and can normally get in and out of his van with a ramp. But his vehicle had stopped on a severe decline.
So, if you would have gotten out of your van down the ramp...
M. CRUZ: By myself?
TUCHMAN: ... the road was pointing, you would have ended up in the river?
M. CRUZ: Yes, with my wheelchair.
TUCHMAN: With the wheelchair. You would have rolled in the river.
M. CRUZ: Yes.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): While he waited helplessly, he heard a woman screaming.
(on camera): What was she saying?
M. CRUZ: Just: "Help me. Somebody help me."
That's stressful, you know, because you want to do something and -- and you cannot do anything, so...
TUCHMAN (voice-over): He doesn't know what happened to the woman. But, finally, help came for him.
(on camera): So, who got you out?
M. CRUZ: There were a couple people, and they help me.
TUCHMAN: Do you know who they were?
M. CRUZ: No. I -- probably, they were working there, workers.
TUCHMAN: You're probably pretty grateful about it.
M. CRUZ: Yes.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): Marcelo keeps seeing his van on TV, as he watches coverage of the disaster with his mother, who was stunned when her son called her from the bridge.
IGNACIA CRUZ, MOTHER OF MARCELO CRUZ (through translator): I was very scared. I was crying, because I couldn't control myself. He was in so much danger.
TUCHMAN (on camera): OK. Hasta luego.
(voice-over): The 26-year-old Mexican immigrant has suffered some back pain from the collapse. But, because he no longer has his van, he had no way to go to the emergency room. So, we were happy to drive him.
Marcelo was left paralyzed after being shot and critically wounded by an unknown assailant seven years ago. So, he is no stranger to hospitals. He was relieved that doctors here told him these injuries are not serious.
He feels he's a very lucky man.
(on camera): How will this change your life?
M. CRUZ: A lot, you know, now, you know, I feel like I have to tell people, you know, that they have to live every day like it's going to be the last day, you know, of their lives. They have to enjoy it, really enjoy, you know, every day.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): This coming from a man who has says he has now had two near-death experiences.
COOPER: How is he handling all this? I mean, it's just an incredible story.
TUCHMAN: Emotionally, he's having a very tough time right now.
Last night, he was elated. He had a tearful reunion with his mother. But, today, he's thinking about all those cars he saw drop into the water, the people who died. And he's having what a lot of people have, survivor's guilty. It's very unfortunate they have to feel that way. They lived and they were very lucky.
But, in his particular case, he was just so helpless. He heard this woman screaming. His natural instinct was to get out in his wheelchair and help her. But he knew he would plunge into the river. And he doesn't know what happened to her. It's very sad.
COOPER: It's just an incredible story.
Gary, appreciate that. Thanks.
With up -- coming up now is another person who has a remarkable story to tell. And when you see the pictures of what happened here and pictures that we have been looking at all day, it is amazing anyone was able to survive.
With me now is Deb Boatwright, who had just driven under the bridge when it came down.
Tell us what you saw.
DEB BOATWRIGHT, EYEWITNESS: Mostly, it's what I heard first.
I had -- I was only going about 20 miles per hour and went underneath the bridge. And I heard -- it was something I have never heard before. It was eerie. And it was -- it was like metal and loud. It wasn't -- I couldn't understand what it was.
And, so, right when I went under, passed through, I turned and looked to my left. And I saw this wall of asphalt come straight up. And the cars were on it. And then they just started sliding back down. And I -- obviously, I stopped my car right in the middle of the road, and I got out. And I couldn't -- you know, I just -- and then -- just then the rest of the whole -- the whole freeway just came down, straight down.
COOPER: And it happened like that.
BOATWRIGHT: Yes. The noise was there. And I drove underneath it. And then when I -- you know, I stop and turn around. I was probably 40 feet from where it was sitting, right down on the roadway. It -- it hit West River Parkway, where I had just driven through. And it was -- it was horrible. It was horrible. And it was nothing I have ever seen.
And, you know, after the -- after the middle part, I think, hit the water, there was an eerie silence. It was just silent, nothing. It was just silent. And it was scary. And I was just waiting and looking. And the people -- I heard some screams after that.
COOPER: You stayed in your car?
BOATWRIGHT: No. I was out of my car in the middle of the road, and just -- I didn't understand. I just didn't understand what was happening. And I -- it -- was terrified.
And then I turned to my left, where -- where I almost got hit coming down. And, there, part of the road was still, you know, slant like this across the roadway. And there was this little white pickup. And it just couldn't hang on to the road. It just started -- it starts sliding down. It went right off the edge. And I think it dropped 30 feet, maybe, and just smashed. I could hear the metal.
And, you know -- and then, after that, the -- there's a truck right there, and that started on fire. And this little truck, this little white truck, I don't know if anybody got out or not. I -- I -- I just don't know.
COOPER: Were you near the water? Did you see people in the water?
BOATWRIGHT: I walked over to where the -- the -- you know, the edging was. And I was looking down into the water. You could see it even splash up. When the middle section hit, it just -- water went every which way.
And I saw people. Like I said, first -- first, it was just silent. And, like, nobody knew what was going on. And, then, a couple people, I saw down on the middle section, they got out of their car and were just standing there. They were just standing. They -- like, they didn't know what -- you know, of course, they didn't know what was happening. I didn't know what was happening. And then I heard some screams. And yells were starting after that. And...
COOPER: How are you doing today? I imagine adrenaline kind of gets you through initially. But then it sort of...
I feel pretty sick.
BOATWRIGHT: I feel very sick in my body and in my mind. And, you know, it's -- it's just something you don't expect to see. And I -- I -- you know, I wanted to come back to the scene. I can't get down there. I want to see, did I really see what happened? And it has just been unimaginable.
COOPER: Does it help to talk about it?
BOATWRIGHT: It does.
BOATWRIGHT: It does, yes, because I feel kind of alone in that.
BOATWRIGHT: You know, and I couldn't help. I couldn't help. And I remember -- I still have this feeling like, you know, I ran back to my car to look for some tennis shoes. That's all I wanted to get were some tennis shoes to -- to try and climb up on the freeway and help people.
And I couldn't -- I didn't have them. They weren't in my car. I always carry them. And they weren't there.
So, I can't -- it's just like a "Twilight Zone" thing. And -- and I'm sick for all the people that were involved and people that are waiting for the family members. It's...
COOPER: Yes. It's horrible, sickening.
BOATWRIGHT: I can't imagine. I can't imagine.
COOPER: Well, I'm glad you made it out.
BOATWRIGHT: Thank you. Thank you for coming up here.
COOPER: Thanks for talking about it.
Thank you, Deb -- Deb Boatwright.
For some facts on the collapsed bridge, let's check the "Raw Data" tonight.
Built in 1967, the 35-W bridge was nearly 2,000 feet long. At its highest point, the bridge stood 64 feet above the Mississippi River. It was also a very busy link for many people, as we touched on earlier, 141,000 vehicles traveling over that bridge, back and forth every day.
One of those vehicles yesterday was a school bus with dozens of kids on board. No doubt, you have heard that story. They all might have been victims, were it not for the hero you're going to meet when we come back.
Also tonight, these stories:
COOPER (voice-over): Less than 15 feet deep, but unlimited danger.
PETE GANNON, PLANTATION, FLORIDA, FIRE DEPARTMENT: Rebar, jagged metal from the cars. You know, you got all that jagged metal from the fenders and the stuff that's all buckled. You have got broken glass in the windows that you're reaching through.
COOPER: See how divers train for rescue and recovery in fast- moving, deadly waters.
Also tonight, are you driving across a deadly accident waiting to happen?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do have a major problem.
COOPER: The state of bridges and why you might want to choose another route to work -- tonight on 360.
COOPER: You're looking at a live picture of what remains of the bridge from the vantage point of where we are standing now. We're just a couple blocks from the bridge. It is lit up at this hour. The work on the bridge continues.
Yesterday, of course, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on the bridge when it finally came down. And among the cars and the trucks was a school bus. It was packed with kids coming back from a trip.
Now, tonight, they're all safe.
CNN's Allan Chernoff shows us why.
ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the I-35 bridge collapsed, a school bus carrying 61 children, their counselors and driver went plummeting, along with the concrete and steel, a traumatic moment for the kids coming back from a swimming trip.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bridge collapsed. And we were right on the part where it went down, it curved down.
CHERNOFF: Twenty-year-old counselor Jeremy Hernandez was sleeping just before the plunge.
HERNANDEZ: I just heard a big bang and I thought we were in a car accident. But then I felt the bus going down, because I was feeling like I was going over the seat. And then it crashed. Boom. It landed. And then it felt like we kept still going, because it went down again. CHERNOFF: The bus was filled with dust. Counselors could barely see the kids, some of whom are preschoolers, but they could hear their cries.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It felt scary, because, first, we thought we crashed, but then we felt like -- we felt us going down.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you look out the window? What did -- what were you seeing?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I didn't look out the window. All I saw was like -- I saw dust everywhere and people were screaming.
HERNANDEZ: My ears were going to pop, because they were screaming so loud. I think that's another reason why I reacted so fast, because they were screaming. And I couldn't -- my head was going to explode. And I was still in shock myself. And then it just hit me, like, we're going to go in the river.
CHERNOFF: If the bus had been two seconds earlier, it would have been in the Mississippi, one second later, and it could have been crushed, like this semi in the next lane. Instead, the bus ended up sitting precariously on a collapsed chunk of roadway.
That's when Hernandez sprang into action.
HERNANDEZ: Then I looked over at the river. And then my heart started beating fast. And I just jumped over the seats, and I opened the back of the door. And I kicked the coolers out. And then I turned around and trying to dump kids off the bus.
And all the kids were landing up on the bridge right there by the bus. And I could feel this bridge still shaking, and trying to tell them, you got to get off the bridge. You got to get off the bridge.
And then people are running up to the bridge, like, hand them to me. And I'm handing kids over to the guys.
CHERNOFF (on camera): Fourteen people on the bus suffered injuries. Two adults and two children remain in the hospital, but everyone survived, thanks in large part to the heroism of Jeremy Hernandez.
Allan Chernoff, CNN, Minneapolis.
COOPER: It wasn't just Jeremy Hernandez, of course. All day long, we have heard stories of individuals standing up, reaching out, helping complete strangers. Sometimes, they never even got each other's names.
Next, the recovery mission -- why divers are having such a tough time right now. We are going to take you underwater, show you what it's really like.
Also tonight, trying to put the puzzle together. We will ask an expert what he thinks may have caused the catastrophe.
We will be right back, live from Minneapolis.
COOPER: Among the many photos that we showed you last night was video of Shanna Hanson. She was the woman diver with a rope wrapped around her waist.
A lot of you were wondering who she is. Her heroism has impressed so many people here. We will talk a little bit more about her later on.
It may be days before we know exactly how many people died in yesterday's bridge collapse. And, as we mentioned earlier, the official death toll is now four. But everyone expects it to rise, as bodies are recovered.
Earlier, police chief Tim Dolan told us -- quote -- "We have a number of vehicles that are underneath big pieces of concrete, and we do know we have some people in those vehicles. We know we do have more casualties at the scene."
Today, we're told divers found at least 11 vehicles below the surface of the Mississippi River. It is grueling and dangerous work that few of us ever get to see.
So, we asked a seasoned rescue worker to show us what the recovery teams in Minneapolis are up against.
PETE GANNON, PLANTATION, FLORIDA, FIRE DEPARTMENT: It's probably the furthest thing from your typical dive.
COOPER (voice-over): Underwater rescue is both dangerous and dirty work.
GANNON: It's a milkshake of contaminants, gas, oil, hydraulic fluid, radiator fluid.
It's a brand-new suit.
It's vulcanized rubber. So, it doesn't -- the ordinary chemicals don't penetrate it, gas, oil. You could actually dive in jet fuel, and it wouldn't permeate that suit.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In this type of situation, you have to make it custom-fit.
GANNON: Yes. You can see it's going to be nice and tight.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why is that so important?
GANNON: So it doesn't leak. I don't want any of that stuff in me or on me. So, you can see it's going to be pretty nice and snug.
COOPER: Suited up, the next step is always the survey.
GANNON: And you can drive by on the surface and actually see a car underwater or see a body underwater, and know exactly where it is, and drop a buoy on it. And then the divers just drop down, you know, because you're going to have to hang on. And, you know, when you get on the very bottom, the current will slacken up a little bit. So, the current's real strong on top. And, the lower you go, the lesser it gets.
COOPER: Underwater after a crash, the hazards are everywhere.
GANNON: Rebar, jagged metal from the cars. You know, you got all that jagged metal from the fenders and the stuff that's all buckled. You have got broken glass in the windows that you're reaching through.
They're going to get caught in all kinds of debris, you know, just trying to get out there. You saw the rebar hanging. Now, that rebar goes underwater. People don't realize, I'm going to swim into that and I'm in some kind of a cage. And I can't see it. You know, it's like swimming under a shopping cart.
COOPER: The work down here is more than a one-man job. Someone always is supposed to have your back.
HERB NORTHWALTON, FIREFIGHTER: So much debris. They have to go in. They need to have a spotter. You need to know how many divers are going into the water. You cannot just send everyone freelance and just jump into the water.
In the event that he runs into troubles down there, he only -- he knows that someone's going to come to get him. That would be me. If I hesitate on going in, it could be fatal. So, my job is very important.
COOPER: And for all the adrenaline, the divers are taught to assume the worst.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a crime scene. You know? It was an accident. But it could have been a crime. And we don't know that yet. So, we're going to treat it like a crime scene. Document everything. Slow down. Document.
I get scared. And I've done over 5,000 dives. I get scared. Until I hit the bottom and take a good, deep breath. And then, I'm OK. I don't know how deep I'm going. I can't see my gauges anymore.
COOPER: The waters became so dangerous today, and the Mississippi around the area of the bridge collapse, the divers had to get out of the water. They were saying that there were underwater eddies created by all the debris that's now there. They'll try again tomorrow, obviously. Safe to say that the divers take great pride in what they're doing. But it's also safe to say they'd rather not be needed at all. Just ahead, bridges here and across the country, how dangerous are they?
COOPER (voice-over): Are you driving across a deadly accident waiting to happen?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do have a major problem.
COOPER: The state of bridges and why you might want to choose another route to work.
Also tonight, another story captured in a single moment. Her car is the red one, under the wreckage.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was really close. It was really close. You know, she's a baby. She could have lost her mommy.
COOPER: Surviving the disaster, ahead on 360.
COOPER: There it is, 6:05 local time last night, the moment the I-35W bridge collapsed. There were many who believed this was a disaster waiting to happen. And they point to at least two reports that we've been telling you about.
In 2001, engineers at the University of Minnesota concluded there were fatigue problems. Then in 2005, the federal government called the bridge structurally deficient. Still, both reports called the bridge safe. We want to know what happened and if this could have been avoided.
John Ochsendorf is a structural engineer and a professor at MIT. He joins us now for his expertise.
John, thanks for being with us.
I want to play the footage CNN obtained of the bridge actually collapsing. As you look at this footage, what jumps out at you?
JOHN OCHSENDORF, STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Well, there's really one primary thing. And that is that there's very little warning of collapse. It's very sudden, and that should not happen. That is, we design structures that, if something goes wrong, there would be some warning before you'd get a catastrophic failure like that. So that's a real cause for concern.
COOPER: Were you surprised that the collapse wasn't just limited to one section of the bridge? I mean, is it typical for these bridges to have a backup or a redundancy system? OCHSENDORF: Well this, particular type of bridge, this is actually a cantilever truss, occurred over several spans. And so if one span goes, the rest of them will go, too.
And furthermore, it does lack redundancy, as you say. That is, if a single element of this truss fails, then the entire system fails. And that's really something to be avoided in any engineering system. We want to have a backup, so that if one element fails, something else can step in.
COOPER: We've all been poring, obviously, over the video and over pictures. I want to show you some pictures that you think might be helpful for investigators. The first one is a close-up before the bridge collapse and shows details of the connections. Why would this one be valuable for the investigation?
OCHSENDORF: Well, this particular view starts to give some idea of the details, that you have steel plates connecting these together. And investigators are going to be very interested in the sequence of failure and particularly, if a connection failed.
We've heard a lot about fatigue. These plates are susceptible to fractures that are difficult to spot. And -- and this photo does start to give us an idea of where these connections are and which ones may have been critical.
COOPER: So, let's look at two pictures from the aftermath, showing where the bridge came apart. What do you see as significant in these? Important?
OCHSENDORF: Well, a truss made of steel, like this, has a continuous member along the top and a continuous member along the bottom. These are called the chords. And in these photos, you can see where the cords are still intact. And that's also valuable when the bridge is reassembled, as part of the investigation, to show exactly where it broke apart.
So, when we can see some cords intact, that tells us that, obviously, failure did not occur there. And so this begins to give us a sense of which elements are intact and which elements are not and need to be focused on.
COOPER: Investigators are now going to try to reconstruct the bridge, trying to help determine what happened. That certainly sounds like it's going to take a long time. Traditionally, how long does it take to actually figure out why something like this would happen?
OCHSENDORF: I have to say, there are brim collapses from 100 years ago that are still argued about by engineers. I think in this case, we will have answers. But the engineering community is asking for patience. It will take a while, I think, in the matter of months or a year or two, before we know real answers.
It's very difficult to speculate at this point. But investigators will focus on these top and bottom cords, because a single failure in either one of those would bring down the entire structure.
COOPER: You personally, when you travel over a bridge, knowing that -- the record of bridges in the United States, knowing the age of a lot of the bridges, do you worry?
OCHSENDORF: Actually, I do not. And people shouldn't worry in their commutes. We design bridges with a very high margin of safety. They're inspected regularly. This accident is a freak accident in a way. But bridge collapses of this scale do occur every few decades.
Driving over a bridge is safer than a lot of other activities people do. But -- so, no. It's not a concern for me. But it is a reminder that we can't take them for granted. And we need federal investment in maintenance of our infrastructure.
COOPER: Professor John Ochsendorf, we appreciate your being with us. Thanks so much.
OCHSENDORF: Thank you.
COOPER: John Ochsendorf.
It was obvious there were troubling safety questions about this bridge years before the collapse. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On a personal note. You're in charge of all these other bridges that have been inspected the same way. Are you a nervous man right now?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Certainly, that's giving us cause to re-look at our whole inspection program. So yes, we're certainly concerned. And a tragedy like this creates a heightened level of concern for us throughout the state.
COOPER (voice-over): Falling bridges, crumbling roads, exploding streets. The infrastructure. Is America's infrastructure coming apart? Soledad O'Brien investigates in the CNN special, "We Were Warned: Road to Ruin", tomorrow at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Coming up next, though, on 360 is the bridge that you drive on safe? You just heard the professor's opinion. We have a report card.
Also, in his own words. How this young man rescued dozens of children trapped on a school bus on the collapsed bridge, when this special edition of 360 continues.
COOPER: This nation relies on its bridges. There are more than half a million of them throughout the country. And until this week, few of us perhaps thought twice about crossing them.
Tonight, that has changed. And the facts we're about to tell you about America's bridges may be more troubling than we thought. CNN's Dan Simon investigates.
DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Some of them, like San Francisco's Golden Gate, are national symbols. But a startling number of America's bridges have become a symbol for something else: neglect. And now, danger.
Bridges are essential to our daily lives. But more than 160,000 of them, more than a quarter of all the bridges in this country, have been rated as structurally deficient, on functionally obsolete. In plain English, they're getting old.
PROF. MO EHSANI, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA: Like anything else, there's a useful life for all structures. And ultimately, they need to be replaced or strengthened.
SIMON: Engineering professor Mo Ehsani has designed nearly a dozen bridges in Arizona.
EHSANI: For most people who are not in this field, they assume that any bridge that they drive on on a daily basis is a safe structure. But, you know, in certain cases, that may not be the case.
SIMON: Experts say some of the most-traveled bridges in the nation have problems. They're structurally deficient.
Bridges like the 51-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. More than 135,000 cross daily.
And Quinnipiac Bridge in Connecticut, 50 years old. It was designed to handle over 80,000 cars and trucks daily. But it's actually carrying more than 140,000 a day.
STEPHEN FLYNN, AUTHOR: We're absolutely not doing what needs to be done to make sure our bridges are adequately maintained, are safe.
SIMON: Stephen Flynn wrote "Edge of Disaster", examining our nation's aging infrastructure, including bridges.
FLYNN: It's very clear that we have to fix the bridges and keep them adequately maintained. Because they're really marvels of engineering, in many cases. But when they fail, they really fail.
And so it's not just loss of life for us, which is, of course, a real tragedy. These are the true lifelines, for many cases, of our cities.
SIMON: Some states are worse off than others. Federal data shows more than a third of bridges in New York, West Virginia and Vermont are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The same goes for Connecticut, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Hawaii.
Pennsylvania is even worse, at nearly 40 percent. That state has 30 of the same design as the collapsed Minneapolis bridge. And in Rhode Island, 53 percent, more than half the bridges there.
(on camera) Bridges in western states tend to do better than other parts of the country. One reason: the bridges are newer. But climate also plays a major factor.
(voice-over) Professor Ehsani says bridges in colder climates corrode more quickly.
EHSANI: The reason, primarily, is because of the deicing chemicals that we use every winter to keep those roadways clean.
SIMON: Federal officials say it would cost $461 billion to fix America's bridges and roadways. The tragedy in Minneapolis may have provided the political and emotional will, finally, to take action.
Dan Simon, CNN, Tucson, Arizona.
COOPER: Well, as we know now, it took just four seconds for this massive Interstate-35 West Bridge to collapse into piles of rubble. One catastrophe, many moments of terror. Coming up, a 360 snapshot. An unforgettable picture and the story behind it.
Also ahead, anatomy of a disaster. A moment-to-moment account of the collapse and the aftermath. We put the pieces together, next on this special edition of 360.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAYOR R.T. RYBACK, MINNEAPOLIS: These are horrible images. Within each of those images is a story. That car you see tangled in the wreckage is someone's cousin or brother or husband.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: That is certainly what makes these pictures so hard to look at. Every piece of wreckage raises so many questions. Who was in the car? Did they survive? Why were they on the bridge at that particular moment? Where were they going? Who was waiting for them at home?
One picture in particular caught our eye. And we couldn't stop thinking about it, so we tracked down the story behind it. It is our "360 Snapshot" tonight.
MELISSA HUGHES, SURVIVOR OF BRIDGE COLLAPSE: I just remember going oh, my God. Oh, my God, oh, my God. And just, like, kind of shaking. COOPER (voice-over): Melissa Hughes had just finished maternity leave. Readjusting to the daily grind hadn't been easy. Back in the office for a week, she couldn't wait for the day to end.
HUGHES: I just wanted to get home. I just wanted to get home and see my baby. See my baby. It's been a long day.
COOPER: Her commute home was bumper-to-bumper.
HUGHES: Yes, I had the windows up, the air conditioning on. The radio on. Just kind of zoning out.
COOPER: And then, suddenly, the ground fell away beneath her.
HUGHES: We're barely moving, if we're moving at all. And then it's, just things in the air. You know, the cars don't seem like they're straight anymore. They're, you know, kind of tilted. And the construction barrels kind of, you know, off in the air. And I swear I saw a construction worker, you know, in mid-air.
And then, all of a sudden, just a free-fall feeling. And then I had that free-fall feeling twice. And then, I heard a loud smash. And I look in my rear-view mirror. And my back window is totally smashed. And I can see that there's something there that smashed it. But I don't know what it is. I don't really think about what it is.
COOPER: Panic. Confusion. Screams. And then, a calm, steady voice.
HUGHES: Someone comes up and opens up the driver's side door of my car and asks if I'm OK. And I said yes.
And they said, "Can you get out?"
He helped me get out. I said, "I don't know. What are we supposed to do? Where are we supposed to go?"
He was like, "I'll show you. I'll show you."
COOPER: The stranger walked Melissa down off the bridge. Safe on firm ground, she turned back.
HUGHES: I looked back and I see that there's -- it's a vehicle that's on top of my car. That's what had made the smash. It was a pickup truck that had flipped over and landed on my car.
COOPER: The horror snapped into focus. Frantic, Melissa called her husband. She wanted her baby, her only child, Olivia.
HUGHES: I told him that he had to bring her. I just had to hold her. I had to -- I had to have my baby in my arms. I had to have her.
COOPER: Her husband brought Olivia to the scene.
HUGHES: I could see him getting Olivia out of the car. And that's when I started to cry. And by the time I got there, I was just bawling. We just stood there and held each other for a while.
COOPER: Her emotions, a new mother, protective, fearful, hard to describe.
HUGHES: I was happy and sad at the same time. Yes. And the biggest relief and the scariest thing altogether. That it was -- it was really close. It was really close. You know, she's a baby. She could have lost her mommy. Yes.
COOPER: Impulsively, Melissa nursed her baby just steps from the collapsed bridge and carried Olivia back to the mangled car.
HUGHES: Just so thankful that we're able to be together. We're really lucky. We're really lucky. And we're both, you know, safe and physically, totally fine. Totally fine.
COOPER: We'll have more on the bridge collapse in a moment.
First, let's check some of the day's other headlines. Tom Foreman joins us with the "360 News and Business Bulletin" -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Anderson. Quite a story there.
On Capitol Hill today, in an 83-14 vote, the Senate approved a new ethics bill. It already has approval in the House. The bill requires members of Congress to disclose more about their pet projects. And it also tightens rules for working lobbyists.
The measure is one of the reforms Democratic leaders promised when they won control of Congress last year.
To Iraq now, where the U.S. military announced today that 79 U.S. troops were killed in July. Six of the deaths came on Tuesday, the last day of the month. It is the lowest monthly death toll since November of last year.
A federal appeals court has ruled against Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans, who argue that their insurance policies should have covered flood damage caused by the city's levees' breaches. The three-judge panel said the terms of the policies, however, clearly excluded such damage.
And on Wall Street, another late session rally. The Dow gained more than 100 points to close at 13,463. The NASDAQ added 22 points to end the day at nearly 2,576. And the S&P shot up six points, closing at 1,472.
That's a bit of what's going on in the rest of the world -- Anderson.
COOPER: Tom, thanks very much.
If you want another look at the day's headlines, you can check out the 360 daily podcast. You can watch it at CNN.com/AC360Podcast or get it from the iTunes store, where it's a top download.
We're going to bring you up to speed on all the late developments here when we come back. And we'll take you to the minutes and seconds that have brought this area such grief.
Later, the heroes who turned a disaster into an example of how to act and what to do. What people seem to do best when things get bad.
Plus, "Keeping Them Honest": a tough look at why you're paying billions to Washington and bridges are still crumbling.
From Minneapolis, this is 360.
COOPER: We are standing near the south shore of the Mississippi, not far from where recovery operations were suspended today because of dangerous conditions in the river. It is all happening just over my shoulder a few blocks away.
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