An accident waiting to happen

One of Minnesota's top cops looks back at the tragic I-35W Mississippi River Bridge Collapse

     Their NIMS training would be tested in every way imaginable during the ensuing days. Not only did the bridge collapse at the worst possible time, but other factors exacerbated the situation, including the fact that a Minnesota Twins game was scheduled for that night and its packed stadium was located only minutes from the bridge.

     The weather was hot and humid, so rescue workers faced a real threat of dehydration. First responders found survivors clinging to the bridge, begging for help. The semi on the bridge had caught fire and burned, killing its driver. The school bus, loaded with 60 children, hung precariously at the edge of a fragment of the bridge, and the bus driver was severely injured. Cell phones went down after about five minutes, leaving unofficial communication to chance.

     The water level stood between 4 and 18 feet deep at the point of implosion, with water clarity of about 6 to 12 inches. The current, which generally runs about 2 knots, increased to a maximum of 7 knots as a result of the bridge sections crashing into it. Debris shifted continuously in the water, creating manmade eddies and tides and rendering the current extremely dangerous.

     In addition to the vehicles on the bridge at the time of the collapse, about 40 construction workers were present when the bridge fell. The university, with an enrollment and faculty of 65,000, stood at the base of the disaster.

     The second Stanek laid eyes on the rubble, he knew that his department's resources and readiness were about to get the work-out of their lives.

     He was right.

The operation and the aftermath

     After removing survivors from the scene, responders commenced the task of locating and recovering deceased victims. It took three weeks and involved multiple agencies, importation of ultra-high-tech equipment, and respectful handling of information for both the press and the families of those killed.

     Stanek, who has spoken to many groups about the bridge collapse, says that in retrospect there were 11 basic lessons learned from his agency's participation in and response to the disaster; by looking at what was learned, the calamity fits better into context.

     Here's what Stanek says is the take-away from this experience, which, when the dust settled, left 13 people dead and more than 100 injured, dozens critically.

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