The mighty Mississippi River is an expanse of water immortalized in the works of Mark Twain and many other American writers. Famed for its muddy waters, steamboats and commerce, the Mississippi occupies a unique place in American history as the site of famous conflicts like the Battle of New Orleans and is the backdrop of cities along its route from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
Although the Mississippi contributes much to the culture and way of life of the people who live along its route, it has long created major challenges for engineers who must devise ways for people to get from one side of the river to the other. Today, huge bridges straddle the water all along the length of the Mississippi, carrying thousands and thousands of motorists in dozens of cities across the river each day.
On August 1, 2007, one such bridge was the Interstate 35W Bridge: 1,900 feet of steel truss-arch construction that served as a major thoroughfare in the city of Minneapolis. The bridge had been built from 1964 to 1967 and, although labeled "structurally deficient" in more recent inspections, the bridge was considered safe but in need of work.
For years, more than 140,000 vehicles had driven the bridge's eight-lane span daily, with traffic bolstered by proximity to the University of Minnesota's campus and the Metrodome sports arena.
During the days leading up to that August day, minor construction was underway on the bridge — mostly centered around guard rails, lighting and other non-structural components. As a result, traffic flow was reduced from eight to four lanes. While crews labored, the bridge was burdened under the additional weight of nearly 600,000 pounds of construction equipment.
In the early evening of August 1, 2007, hundreds of vehicles, including a school bus loaded with children, a semi-tractor trailer, and dozens of commuters in their personal vehicles heading home from work, inched along the I-35W Bridge as the waters of the Mississippi flowed below them.
At 6:05 p.m., the bridge collapsed, sending those vehicles and many others plunging toward the river. The lives of everyone who survived the next few hours, along with the lives of many area first responders, were changed forever.Setting the stage
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek knows Minneapolis. Born and raised in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Stanek served as a captain with the Minneapolis Police Department, eventually overseeing the Criminal Investigations Division. After serving five terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Stanek was appointed in 2003 to a position as the state's Commissioner of Public Safety and Director of Homeland Security, and in 2006 he was elected sheriff.
Commanding a department that includes more than 800 sworn and civilian employees, Stanek is noted for his thoughtful leadership and ability to see the big picture. When the I-35W Bridge collapsed, the sheriff had a chance to put his and his department's personnel and training to the test, as well as to test skills derived from National Incident Management System (NIMS) compliance.
Stanek was on his way to a meeting when he caught the radio-dispatched call alerting officers to the bridge's collapse during the height of evening rush hour. Ironically, his office is located only four blocks from the bridge.
"I didn't believe what I heard on the radio — there was no emotion in the dispatcher's voice," Stanek says. He dialed in by phone to double-check the call — the idea was almost inconceivable. Soon, the air buzzed with radio traffic.
It would take the full resources of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, which has jurisdiction over the water, and the resources of 103 additional agencies, most notably the Minneapolis police and fire departments, to complete the rescue and recovery of victims and their vehicles, as well as to investigate the disaster.