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THE SITUATION ROOM
Search for Bodies, Clues After Minnesota Bridge Collapses; Kids on Trip Survive Plunge
Aired August 2, 2007 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news coverage continuing. Crews swimming against strong currents and sharp objects, checking submerged cars for trapped bodies. After a Minneapolis bridge plunged over 60 feet into the Mississippi River, dozens are missing and the death toll could rise.
As crews search for bodies, officials are searching for answers. They're picking through massive slabs of concrete and twisted steel. But the bridge is unstable and very dangerous.
The transportation secretary says a bridge in America just shouldn't fall down. But how safe are the bridges you cross every day?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
A desperate search for bodies, a frantic search for answers. Here's what's happening after a section of a major Minneapolis bridge collapsed.
Crews are searching through very dangerous conditions for bodies in the water and under the rubble. Officials estimate between 20 to 30 people could be missing and say it could be days before all the bodies are recovered.
Four people are confirmed dead, but officials warn that number is likely to rise. And officials are collecting every chunk of concrete and piece of twisted steel to reassemble them like a structural jigsaw puzzle. They hope to try to put them back together to determine just what happened.
CNN has multiple resources mobilized across the scene and beyond.
First, let's start our coverage with Carol Costello. She's watching this story closely.
Carol, update our viewers on what we know.
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Wolf, it just happened so fast. Once that bridge buckled, it only took four seconds, four seconds, to fall. Not too much time to react if you're unlucky enough to be in the wrong place.
COSTELLO (voice over): 6:05: dozens of people struggling through rush hour. Then what felt like an earthquake.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic and going about five miles an hour. And I felt some shimmying and then a big jolt. And at that point that's when cars in front of me started to disappear.
COSTELLO: Those cars disappearing because the bridge collapsed in seconds. There was little time to react.
Within a few minutes we were just boom, boom, boom. I mean, we felt this horrible -- and we were falling, literally falling.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think I've explained that. But when I'm saying these booms, you were falling at the same time. Like I don't know, we're guessing 40 feet. We don't know.
It could have been more, but -- and then all of a sudden we were stopped. And our car was at this awful angle, you know, just smashed in. And we were on top of a smaller car.
GREG BABINO, ON THE BRIDGE DURING COLLAPSE: I was about to get out of my car, and then cars were skidding down the incline above me on the piece that was still connected, and they were falling, you know, on -- they were falling, you know, coming down the incline.
COSTELLO: For those who survived, it was time to thank god and to help those who weren't so lucky.
JEROD POWERS, WITNESS: We carried people from the bridge on -- you know, we put them on the stretchers and then carried them to the ambulance. You know, when you put a bloodied, delusional pregnant woman on the stretcher and then carry her to the ambulance, it's one of those things you're going to remember for a while.
COSTELLO: Remember and try to make sense of and find whatever silver lining you can.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you think about what the scene looked like, the fact that we had 80 people injured in itself is somewhat of a miracle that it's that low.
COSTELLO: And you know, Wolf, one of our affiliates is reporting construction workers were on top of that bridge. They actually rode the falling pieces of concrete into the water. One is missing but the rest survived.
Of course, you mentioned those cars are still under water. The recovery effort has begun, and so has the blame game. And, of course, I'm sure we'll have much more on that -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We certainly will. We're also going to have some heroic stories, Carol, individuals risking their own lives to try to save others. Coming up shortly, the diver, a firefighter diver who ran and jumped into that water to save some people's lives, she's going to be joining us. We're going to be going there shortly to hear what she has to say.
This is a compelling story our viewers are going to be interested in, and this is coming up shortly.
Let's go to Brian Todd. He's on the scene for us in Minneapolis right now.
And Brian, you've been digging. You've been looking into what happened. What are authorities out there telling you?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what they're telling us is that this is a very complex investigation. There are some indications of what happened early on with this bridge.
What everybody's talking about today are two reports over the past six years that indicated structural difficulties and fatigue of this bridge. Officials say that they were given no indications when either of those reports were issued that there was any imminent danger. But one official just a short time ago did give one little window into this bridge's past.
Here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In 1990, it was classified as a structurally deficient bridge, which is a federal description, and we'll go into that a little bit later. This particular bridge was structurally deficient initially due to corrosions of the bearings. So that they were not able to move as freely as we -- as designed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: But still, in that particular incident, and in subsequent reports on this bridge, officials say they found no signs of major cracking. And again, no signals that this bridge was in imminent danger.
I'm going to give you a look here just how close we are to the collapse point. We're only a couple hundred yards away from it. The Army Corps of Engineers has told us that they're going to lower the water level to try to help the recovery effort here. That will also, hopefully, help investigators as they start to piece together what went on here and just exactly what conditions led to the collapse.
The update right now, Wolf, four confirmed fatalities. That number expected to rise. Twenty to 30 people still missing. Up to 50 cars in the water. They are furiously working, dive teams, boats all over that river, to try to get them out.
BLITZER: It almost collapsed like an accordion, if you take a look at that span over one bank, then over the Mississippi, the other bank. It just is amazing how that huge structure -- structure simply went down.
What about the recovery? What's the latest on the recovery efforts to try to find those missing individuals?
TODD: Well, officials are being very, very careful about the numbers that they're giving us. They're only say four confirmed fatalities to us right now. They do say they really expect that to go up.
They've been doing this all day. They've been dredging the river. They've been trying to get under water, dive teams, boats. As we just said, the Army Corps of Engineers is about to lower the water level here.
So they -- but they are being very cagey right now about actual numbers of people, bodies that they're recovering. It stood at four for several hours now. We're expecting an update shortly -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian Todd is on the scene for us. He's going to be updating us throughout these hours of THE SITUATION ROOM.
Brian, thanks very much.
There are some dramatic pictures we've been getting in, still photos coming in. We want to share some of them.
Take a look at how a huge interstate, 35W in Minneapolis, just wound up shortly near the end of rush hour. These pictures have come in from various viewers out there. And they are so dramatic.
They show how just miracles occurred. Miracles occurred.
These pictures coming in from The Associated Press right there. You can see how some of these vehicles, trucks and cars, simply managed to stop and save the individuals who were inside those vehicles lives.
Let's go to Mary Snow. She's also on the scene for us.
Mary, you've are speaking with family members and survivors out there. And there are some really unbelievable stories. But give our viewers a sense of what you're picking up.
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, you're talking about miracles, and one of them has to be the fact that a school bus coming back from a water park, from a field trip, totally averted disaster. Some very harrowing moments, but thankfully, everyone survived on this bus, and a young camp counselor is really being hailed as a hero today.
SNOW (voice over): An afternoon outing turns into a nightmare for 52 kids and nine adults on a school bus.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were on our way back from the swimming field trip and we were riding over the bridge, and the bridge collapsed. And we were right on the part where it went down, it curved down. 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 were you seeing?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I didn't look out the window. All I saw was, like, I sawdust everywhere and people were screaming.
SNOW: Unlike many cars around it, the bus does not go tumbling into the water or crumble in two.
JEREMY HERNANDEZ, RESCUED STUDENTS AFTER COLLAPSE: I just heard a big bang, and I thought we are in a car accident. But then I felt the bus going down, because I felt like I was going over the seat.
And then it crash, boom, it landed. And then it felt like we kept still going. So then it went down again and then it crashed. And it stopped. And then you could hear kids, like, moaning and crying.
SNOW: One mom on the bus credits staff member Jeremy Hernandez's quick thinking for saving lives on the spot. She says he busted open the back door of the bus and helped hustle the kids to safety.
HERNANDEZ: They very all screaming. They were thinking they were going to die. Even when they were safe, they were just -- they wanted their parents. And they didn't want nobody to leave them.
SNOW: Eyewitnesses describe the chaos as it unfolded.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a group of kids that were pulled off, and they were crying when we came down. They were just getting pulled out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most of them were crying pretty, pretty bad. A lot of, you know, screaming, crying. A couple of them were bleeding. You know, a couple of them, they really looked like they were hurt, and they had to be -- you know, we were kind of setting them on the ground and telling them to, you know, run away from the bridge. But a couple of them had -- had to be carried away to a safe distance, because we didn't think at the time that they could, you know, walk. And we didn't want to chance it if they did have, you know, broken bones.
SNOW: Frantic parents watched the scene on television, waiting for any news of their loved ones. And then for these families a happy ending. Everyone on board survived a summer outing they will never forget.
SNOW: And Wolf, in all, 14 people on that bus were taken to the hospital yesterday. All but four remain in the hospital. That includes two children, two adults. Of those adults, one is the bus driver. We don't have the exact conditions of those four in the hospital, but so many grateful parents for that harrowing experience yesterday -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Mary Snow is on the scene for us, and Mary's going to stand by, because she's got some other dramatic stories she's watching as well.
Remember, we're standing by for a news conference from one of the rescue divers, a firefighter who went in -- into the waters of the Mississippi to rescue individuals. That's coming up momentarily.
I also want to show you some exclusive video that we got that shows this bridge, 35W, going down. And pay attention to the upper right-hand corner of your screen when you see how quickly a bridge like this can simply collapse.
Take a look at this. There you see it right there. You see at the top of your screen, near the right, you see what the bridge looks like. And look at this -- within a matter of seconds, four seconds to be precise, that bridge is gone.
Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York. He's watching this horrendous story with us.
You know, every American, Jack, goes over bridges probably every single day. This story resonates, because there are a lot of bridges out there, and we're going to go into the numbers later that are in really horrendous shape.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The bridge collapse in Minneapolis exposes a crack in the infrastructure of this country that runs very deep. It's nothing new. Much of our infrastructure -- bridges, roads and tunnels -- has been neglected for years and years and years.
In its 2005 infrastructure report card -- by the way, that's the same year that some idiot inspected this collapsed bridge in Minnesota and decided it would be fine until 2020 -- in 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave grades that no school kid would want to bring home.
Our nation's bridges got a C. Our roads got a D. Navigable waterways, a D minus. The national power grid, a D. Dams, a D. Rail capacity, a C minus.
Why is that, you might ask? Well, it's no secret what happens.
When there's an incident like this one in Minneapolis, everybody pays attention for about an hour and a half. And then it's forgotten.
Maintenance gets deferred, and somehow it's always more tempting for the powers that be to divert these funds to something else -- pork projects, bridges to nowhere, you name it. Maintenance budgets are often like the Social Security trust fund, they exist in name only.
So here's the question: In light of the fact that proper maintenance of our roads and bridges has been neglected for years, how do we get our government to do the right thing? You
can e-mail your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile.
You know, it's not like deciding not to buy a new fleet of government cars because you need the money for something else, Wolf. This kind of neglect and deferring this maintenance puts people's lives at risk. And it's an abomination that it would allowed to go on.
It's been going or for years. I can remember stories here in New York where we have lots of infrastructure. You know, they put off painting, they put off doing this or that, there's rust on the bridges. And, I mean, it's criminal, because eventually this is the kind of thing that happens.
BLITZER: You're absolutely right, Jack. And I think that outrage that you and I feel and a lot of our viewers feel is certainly going to be amplified over the next few days.
There's a news conference under way out in Minneapolis right now involving some of the first responders. I want to listen in briefly.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
SGT. EDWARD THOMAS NELSON, MINNEAPOLIS POLICE: ... different angles, and it crossed open water. And basically, you know, I didn't want my gun belt to be an anchor, so we ditched the gun belts and slid down a beam, had about a four-foot span that we had to cross to get to another section of bridge that was also down in that area. Got to that span and made our way over to the part of the bridge that was in the water.
NELSON: There were several people who naturally were extremely upset. Very excited and frightened. We did our best to calm them at that time. And I felt it was of the utmost importance to get them off that span.
We had no idea of the stability. And as I stated, it was shifting and moving. And you could see cars down in the water. And it was just imperative to get them off the bridge.
QUESTION: Is there a particular story or instance that comes to mind of someone going -- passing along their sentiments to you that they wanted to pass along to their family?
NELSON: No, there was not.
QUESTION: Any instances of victims who maybe survived the plunge but then something else happened in the water?
NELSON: I cannot say for certain, you know, their status.
QUESTION: Sergeant, after you reached the span, after you reached the people that were out there, what did you do next?
NELSON: Well, we assessed the condition of those people on the span. Those that we could immediately get into a boat, you know, on their own power, those that needed more significant medical attention. So there was, I believe, three that needed to be backboard (ph), with back injuries, that we assisted when fire and rescue arrived. And got them on the boats and got them off the span.
QUESTION: How many -- how many people are we talking about?
NELSON: I can't give you an exact number -- 10, 15 people, somewhere in that.
NELSON: Basically, we just told them to be calm. A couple of the girls were somewhat hysterical. And they couldn't understand how they got to that point.
And I just explained to them that they fell. And they seemed somewhat amazed by that fact.
They were somewhat disorientated. And I explained to them the fall was fine. It's not going to hurt you. It's the sudden stop at the end. But, you know, and they found that somewhat humorous and it calmed them down. So...
QUESTION: Sergeant, was there a sense that every second counted in terms of saving someone's life?
NELSON: It's just -- I thought it was important that we clear the area as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: Weren't you worried that the rest of that was just going to come tumbling all the way back down into the Mississippi?
NELSON: I gave it a lot of thought after the fact.
QUESTION: Sir, now that you've had 10, 12, whatever hours (INAUDIBLE)?
NELSON: Oh, sure, I think about everybody out there. I think about the outstanding job that I witnessed every police officer and firefighter do. I thought about the dignity of those survivors, how they stood fast, maintained their dignity, and were calm in a very, very difficult situation.
Was very proud of everybody involved.
QUESTION: How quickly after the fact were you there? How many minutes after the bridge went down were you there, would you say?
NELSON: Three or four minutes.
QUESTION: And do you think that made a difference here and gave you a pretty good shot? NELSON: It made a difference. In what aspect I can't say. We got there as quickly as we could and we just happened to be there. One of the first ones to arrive, and we did what we had to do.
QUESTION: Did you witness people trapped inside their cars in the water?
NELSON: I should explain that he responded on the south side. A whole different group responded on the other side. And so we had two groups down there.
I don't know if you even communicated with each other down there.
NELSON: There was a span of water between us, and I just simply indicated that we'll take the bridge, stay off the bridge. And they handled what was on the other end.
QUESTION: You said you were with two other sergeants.
NELSON: I was with Sergeant Karl Olson.
QUESTION: Karl with a...
NELSON: That is correct. And officer Jason Schmidt.
NELSON: Well, you know...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Didn't you have experience with water before in your past?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tell them.
NELSON: Go ahead.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, Ed's as an ex-Navy SEAL, so...
NELSON: No, that's not...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ex-Army.
NELSON: No, it's just part of the job. That's about all I can say there.
It's -- you have a job to do. You train to do this job. And when you encounter a situation like that, that's what it's all about. You just do it.
NELSON: And as I stated, what I did, what Sergeant Olson did, what Officer Schmidt did, what every officer there did was absolutely to the letter of MPD policy. They did a great job. Everybody did a great job. What we did is no more important than -- than a cop standing on the corner keeping the traffic from coming in.
QUESTION: Did you help the people on the span on to boats to get them off, to evacuate them? But then what did you do? Did you stay there? Did you move to another...
NELSON: We made sure everybody was off the span and then we left on the last boat.
QUESTION: Sergeant Nelson, I imagine as much experience as you have and as tried and true your men are in a situation like this, there's got to be so much emotion that goes into that though in those rescue efforts. Can you talk about that?
NELSON: The emotion comes after. You -- quite frankly -- and I can only speak for myself. I can't talk about other people's emotions.
But at that the time when you're doing it, emotion doesn't enter into it. You understand fully that these people are depending on you and that you have a job to do. And that's what you do. You do your job. That's what you're paid to do.
QUESTION: It's 12 hours later. (INAUDIBLE) ?
NELSON: Twelve hours later, when you look at the bridge and go, I haven't a clue why I was under that.
QUESTION: Did you see anybody dead?
NELSON: I'd rather not comment on that.
NELSON: I'm doing just fine.
QUESTION: Were there any communication issues? You know, oftentimes in this chaos, radios don't work. There's cell phone traffic. Everybody is trying to -- were there issues like that?
NELSON: Well, I think the biggest communication issue that we had, Sergeant Olson and myself, when we crossed that span, and Officer Schmidt, we left our gun belts which hold our radio gear behind because I was concerned about the open water. I didn't want to be wearing an anchor. And in hindsight, it makes it very difficult to communicate when you leave your radio behind.
So, you know, we were back to the stone age, yelling back to the officers on the other side. "Hey, you want to take care of this? Call them?" But...
QUESTION: Chief, can I ask you the same question. Were there any issues with communication?
Again, I know the alert went out, don't use your cell phone if you don't have to. Leave it to first responders, that kind of thing. Was that an issue at all?
CHIEF TIM DOLAN, MINNEAPOLIS POLICE: Yes, the cell phones shut down for a period of time. Our Nextel shut down because of the traffic. So -- but the radios worked. But the cell phones didn't.
QUESTION: And the radio is all you really needed to be able to communicate?
DOLAN: Well, it helps, you know, in -- but we use the cell phones for a lot of notifications and so forth. But especially people that aren't at the scene or aren't working. So, we used the Nextels. And they were down for just a while.
QUESTION: Clearly, this is still an ongoing recovery effort. Is there any sense of frustration at this point at how slow it's going to get to those people who are obviously...
DOLAN: Actually, like I said before, if you see the scene and you see it close up, you realize, it's going to take a long time. That slab of concrete that ET and the others went and climbed under, I mean, there's -- it's hanging there.
There's a bus on it. There's vehicles on it. And it looks like it's going to fall at any time.
And like you said, you could hear rivets popping and so forth. They shouldn't have been doing that, except like they felt they had to do that. And that's -- that's not only courageous, but it's exceptional. So...
QUESTION: When you look at officers like this on your force who do do that, what goes through your mind, Chief?
DOLAN: You know, it's like Ed says, I mean, there's instances of people doing that, not quite to this extreme, but, you know, facing those types of dangers in law enforcement and in fire work, and in public safety all throughout the country. But this is a case here I think that's just -- the story is exceptional.
It's -- there aren't many cases where officers take their gun belts and leave them behind and go out and deal with people in the middle of a river. So... QUESTION: Sergeant, you talked about, you know, former military. Has this compared to anything else in your experiences as far as the danger and...
NELSON: I actually don't think I can compare this to anything. I mean, it's -- when you arrive on something like this, quite frankly, it gave me so much appreciation for those responders at 911. I mean, this is nothing compared to what they faced. And the magnitude of this was absolutely amazing.
QUESTION: So in your experience the military, nothing has...
NELSON: Nothing has compared to this.
QUESTION: At didn't -- at one point, didn't you have to wade through water to get to people as well?
NELSON: No, we tried to avoid the water. We crossed the beam. That was one of the reasons of taking the gun belts off.
We were concerned. The water moves pretty swiftly there. And we have quite a span to cross, an open span with no support to, you know, go from one piece of wreckage to another. And we didn't want that to hinder us.
NELSON: About four feet.
QUESTION: Four feet deep? What was the distance that you traveled, would you say?
NELSON: Oh, the total distance that we traveled, I couldn't even begin to estimate. From River Road and the bridge, all the way down to the river and all the way across to the span.
QUESTION: But when you were going -- when you were going on that beam, how long was that beam and how wide was that beam, ballpark?
NELSON: I suppose the beam would be about a 12 x 12. It was a 12 x 12 cube that was twisted. And probably at a 60-degree angle, facing the water.
QUESTION: A 12 x 12...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Inches?
NELSON: Twelve inches x 12 inches.
QUESTION: Sergeant, the people that you talked to out on the span, what kinds of things were they telling you?
NELSON: They were concerned about other people on the bridge, concerned about vehicles in the water. It was amazing, because they expressed just as much concern about other people as they did themselves. QUESTION: And were they in their cars at the time? Were they out of their cars?
NELSON: Most of them were out of their cars at the time.
QUESTION: And the beam, that foot-wide beam that you crossed, how long was it? I mean, how far did you travel on it?
NELSON: We probably traveled about 16 feet down on that beam and then traversed from that point over to another piece of wreckage over the open water.
QUESTION: OK. And then at that point -- how high were you above the water?
NELSON: Fifteen feet.
QUESTION: Sir, for the family members who are still awaiting some word about their loved ones, what are some words that you can share with them today?
NELSON: I wish them the best. That's -- we did our best, and did what we could do. And I wish them the best.
QUESTION: This slab you said was (INAUDIBLE).
NELSON: The actual slab that's the piece that's in the river at this time. It's the actual structural bridge.
It had split in two lengthwise, and it curled on the edges down towards the water. And the first vehicle we came up on was completely submerged, crushed. And I spoke with the gentleman there. I asked him if he saw anybody get out of that vehicle, and he looked at me and he said, "That was me." So...
QUESTION: How long were you on that slab all together? How much time?
NELSON: I, quite frankly, lost track of time.
DOLAN: I got to that scene close to 7:00, and I saw ET coming up in the river soaking wet. I thought he was in the river, but it was just sweat.
QUESTION: So, the danger here, obviously, with the debris, and the water was only about four feet deep, but it was the debris mixed with the current...
NELSON: I have no idea how deep the water was.
DOLAN: The water actually -- he's saying four feet traversed. The water there is right where the channel is where the barges go through.
QUESTION: Oh, OK.
DOLAN: So I would say it is a little bit deeper than four feet.
QUESTION: Oh, it is. OK.
DOLAN: Yes. It would be deep enough for a barge. So...
QUESTION: Have the currents been given you trouble in terms of working out there today?
NELSON: You know, I can't offer an opinion on that. That's -- that's fire and the sheriff's department's venue. And I don't have the expertise to answer that question, sir.
QUESTION: Sergeant, when you walk out in a situation like that, do you have to take a moment and kind of look around and take it all in for like two or three seconds before you get to work, or does that not even happen?
NELSON: You know, quite frankly, you don't even think about that. You don't have time for that. You arrive, you make a quick assessment, and you start doing the job. That's what -- that's what you have to do.
QUESTION: With the magnitude...
NELSON: The magnitude of what took place and the magnitude of the seriousness of the nature comes later.
QUESTION: Sir, how old are you?
QUESTION: How many years on the force?
NELSON: Twenty here.
PHILLIPS: As a police officer in total?
QUESTION: And how many years in the military?
NELSON: No, no, no. That's Navy. Army.
DOLAN: He's one of our SEALS now. So... QUESTION: Sir, did you encounter any children?
NELSON: No, I did not. The children were still on the bus up above. And Sergeant Burns coordinated that effort. We went down below.
QUESTION: Did you have to physically carry anyone yourself? People who couldn't get out on their own?
NELSON: No. Those that we suspected that had back injuries were backboarded (ph). You know, we assisted with the stretchers, but we didn't carry any individuals.
QUESTION: Chief, I imagine when something like this happens, down the line you assess how your folks did. At this early stage, anything you could have done better? Did they do it perfectly by the book?
DOLAN: You know, I think it's fairly obvious that -- you know, and this is a -- in my view, one of the -- a very heroic act. It doesn't get much more heroic than that.
Obviously, we'd advise them to carry his radio next time. Although, if it would have gotten wet, it wouldn't have worked anyway. So I knew that.
And like he says, he wasn't alone. A number of other officers out there with him.
But I've been down to that span, I've looked at that wreckage today. We moved officers that are away from that, that were 40 feet away from it, and they were crawling under it. So it's a -- they took an incredible risk to go out there to help those people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks a lot.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You bet.
BLITZER: All right. We have just heard from heroes, Minneapolis' finest, police officers who risked their lives during perilous moments to go out and rescue individuals stranded by the collapse of this -- this bridge across the Mississippi River in -- in Minneapolis.
We're standing by for a news conference, another news conference. We're expecting to hear from the National Transportation Safety Board. They're the lead investigators right now into how this major, major interstate bridge could simply collapse within a few seconds, causing such devastation and destruction.
Let's go to Abbi Tatton, though, first, our Internet reporter.
We're getting amazing pictures courtesy of CNN I-Report coming in. And I want you to share, Abbi, some of the pictures that we have received, because they are truly poignant.
ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, from the very first pictures we got in from Mark Lacroix, this wide shot, one of the first things we saw last night when this happened.
As Mark Lacroix was sending in to CNN's I-Report, Tim Davis (ph), who lives just a mile away, was heading to this area. And this is what we have been getting, different angles from different eyewitnesses that help us piece together what was going on.
This is what Tim Davis saw in that section, concrete buckled over. If I go on to this one, you will see the steel there at the right-hand side of your screen just folded in half under the weight. This was a section of the bridge that collapsed over land. And you can see the vehicles. Just in Tim Davis' three or four pictures alone, we counted more than a dozen that have been thrown aside like toy cars, some of them crushed under other vehicles as they fell.
You can see the first-responders arriving on the scene. This was within half-an-hour of the collapse last night -- other vehicles under debris. Tim Davis' pictures also show the cars that were thrown clear of the bridge, flipped over here. And, again, volunteers, police officers, looking under those vehicles, looking for survivors.
And this one other picture really struck me, just the chaos of the scene. There's a vehicle that was thrown to one side. In amongst personal belongings, there's a C.D., magazines, somebody's cooler there, all together with this tons of concrete.
As Tim Davis did, as Mark Lacroix did as well, last night and throughout the day, you can send in your pictures to CNN.com/ireport.
Wolf, we have got hundreds of them so far.
BLITZER: And we're going to be showing more of these dramatic pictures to our viewers throughout this program here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
This is really dramatic imagery, and it's imagery coming in from average people who just happened to be there, take their cameras out, shoot some pictures and send them to CNN ireport.
Thank you, Abbi, for that.
We're going to be standing by for this news conference, as I say, the National Transportation Safety Board, Mark Rosenker, the head of the National -- the NTSB, standing by to hear what is going on. How could a bridge like this simply collapse within a span of four seconds? We're watching this story, a lot of breaking news happening here right now.
One family in particular right now is praying their loved one is a Jane Doe at a local hospital and did not suffer a worse fate.
Let's get some more on this story, the search for bodies after that bridge collapse in Minneapolis. CNN's Don Lemon, he's on the scene. He caught up with a man and his two daughters worrying about a wife and a mother.
DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What has the last couple of hours been like for you? I know it's an obvious question, but I have got to ask you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I haven't slept or eaten much. And just -- you can't even explain the feeling.
LEMON: You mentioned earlier that you feel like you're dreaming.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. It's kind of surreal, but you just got to stick together and be a family, because that's what she would want us to do.
LEMON: Talk to me about your mom.
You're waiting for your mom. You told me that your mom adopted you when you were just little kids from Colombia. How old were you? Tell us about that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was three months and my sister was four months. And my parents adopted us from Bogota, Colombia. And I think we are two of the luckiest girls in the nation right now, because our parents are wonderful people.
LEMON: What do you want folks to know about your mom?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just pray. Just pray, please. That's all we can ask for right now, is just hoping. Just be positive, and everything will be OK.
LEMON: Your phone has been ringing off the hook.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
LEMON: People calling. What are they saying to you?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just that, we're with you. Our prayers are with you. We love you. If there's anything we can do, just ask.
Dad, I hear -- I heard you talking to your girls, saying, just be positive.
RONALD ENGEBRETSEN, WIFE MISSING FOLLOWING BRIDGE COLLAPSE: Yes, be positive. That's all we can ask for all of us. Sherry would want to us be positive. She would be positive for us if we were lost or unaccounted for. And we just hope for everybody and for her in particular that the lord is with her and he's protecting her, and she's in somewhere or some way or she's in a hospital some way or as a Jane Doe, unidentified, that we can somehow get to her, and maybe she has the medical attention she needs. But -- so, for some reason...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, we're going to go from this heart -- heart- wrenching story to Mark Rosenker. He's the head of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board. They're the investigators.
Let's listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
MARK ROSENKER, CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: ... treating this in any other way than an accident. They have some technical expertise that is extremely helpful to us in our evidence- recovery aspects.
We train with them. They come to our training academy and learn our techniques of evidence recovery. We -- we send our evidence- recovery teams to Quantico with the FBI. We have a very, very good working relationship. So, they -- they're there to help us. They're there to assist us, and they are doing a good job of that right now.
Currently, we are getting our witness statements. The police department here in Minneapolis has been extremely cooperative and helpful. They are giving us their statement of witnesses. And these are going to -- we are going to find it extremely valuable as the investigation continues.
The bridge we're dealing with is technically known as a deck steel truss. It means it has three -- three parts to it, three elements, a deck, a superstructure, and a substructure. The deck is made of a concrete, rebar type of material. The superstructure is made of steel. And the substructure is made of steel and concrete footings.
We're going to be looking at -- past the construction project of this and looking at designs, any -- any type of modifications that have been made during this 40-year history of this bridge. And we're also looking for any type of alterations.
We're getting the maintenance records. Right now, we already have the maintenance records and the inspection records. Let me clarify that, the inspection records that come from the National Bridge Inspection Program, from 2000 to 2007.
We're asking for 10 previous years. And we may even go back further than that to try to understand the condition of this bridge. We're going to be examining the concrete, steel, and if it, in fact, had failed at any time. We're even going back to find out, and we're working, going to be talking to the Coast Guard, about any possibility of a strike from any type of a vessel. Coast Guard would be able to give us any type of data, should that have happened over the 40-year history of this bridge. We are also coordinating. We're getting tremendous cooperation from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, along with the Federal Highway Administration.
Right now, things that are going on are what we would call the documentation phase of our investigation. Some of that is being done by our own investigators. Some is being done by the state police. And some is going to be done by the evidence-recovery team of the FBI.
They're going to be assisting us in creating what we call the documented picture of where the bridge actually -- what it looked like, so that we can bring this back and create the appropriate computer model. And I will explain why this is extremely important to us, because we will use this device called a laser transit survey.
It's called a total station. That's really the -- the device. It really is a survey device which will give us accurate points on every, every edge of that bridge structure, and the elements from the superstructure to the footing base, all of the elements that we're interested in will be mapped out by the total station.
We will be taking that back to Washington, putting it on our computer, and then working with a -- a device, an actual computer program which deals in -- in failure analysis. And this is an interesting program, because the FHA -- FHWA, the Federal Highway Administration, actually has given us this program.
And this program was actually created by one of their employees while they were going to school at the University of Minnesota. And this program is basically a program that will help us understand -- simply stated, when we put this program into the computer and also use it along with our laser transit survey, what we will be able to do is take parts of the bridge, the parts of the bridge structure away, until the bridge actually falls down, to create the actual scene that we have now.
When -- when we do this through the computer model, it will speed up the process of understanding which one of the components, which one of the elements, failed. And that's going to help us a great deal. That -- probably, this program, along with the video, is going to probably improve the ability for the NTSB to get the facts, do its analysis, by months.
So, we're very, very pleased. The video that we're able to get today, we're going to send it back to Washington to get it enhanced. And we are also going to be using this program later to be able to do this failure analysis, to take apart every one of the elements to see which one creates that picture that we now know is the result of this failure.
I will take a few questions after I'm finished with the opening statement, if it's OK.
We're also getting the ratings, the various ratings that we got from the FHWA's National Bridge Inspection Program of this particular bridge. We have gotten from Minnesota DOT the original design and any of the additional documents for any potential maintenance and alterations that may have been done.
As far as the investigation and where we are at this moment, we are creating our investigation teams, and they will include five working groups. First, the human factors group will be interviewing those men and women that were actually working on the bridge, trying to understand exactly what they were doing, the roles, the missions that they had in trying to make the bridge better.
We're also going to be looking at the design. We have a design group, to see if this design was an adequate design, the construction group, to see if the materials and the process under which this bridge was constructed was appropriate, a human performance group. And that's going to be a group that's dealing with how the people did their jobs.
Finally, the survival factors -- survival factors will really be dealing mostly with why vehicles, some vehicles, survived, one, and others didn't. So, we will be understanding that from these five groups.
Now, before I take any questions, I want to thank the witnesses that have already called the NTSB, providing information. But I want to give a telephone number that I would hope that the media would share with the people of Minneapolis.
The number, if you have any information, if you have video, if you have any pictures, still pictures, that you believe might be of help to us, please call us at 866-328-6347. That's 866-328-6347. At this point, I will take some questions.
QUESTION: Sir, you said that you feel good about the progress that you made. In addition to what you just said there, is there anything that has happened today, in the past several hours, on the ground that has given you any more clues as to what took place?
What -- what we are particularly pleased about is, one, getting that video. That's the -- that's the equivalent in getting a cockpit voice recorder or a flight data recorder. Without -- without this video, we would be working kind of in the real-time blind.
This is going to show us what happened and the amount of time, where it began, where this failure began, and then, when we add that with our failure analysis, and our station design and all of the documentation, full station documentation, we're going to be able to move much faster than would we have had we had been starting from scratch.
QUESTION: Do you have any indications of the cause at this point? ROSENKER: No. No.
QUESTION: Do you have any...
ROSENKER: We are hoping that we will be complete with our documentation phase and the work that we need to do. We're not going to take the entire bridge away, as far as the NTSB is concerned, and rebuild it.
This -- what we have found today is going to help us significantly. Our materials specialists, the head of the materials lab, is out on the bridge right now, beginning to look at what he believes we may need, the elements, the various materials, the metals, some of the structure, which we will need in order to rebuild and take it to a secure area. But we will not, we believe, need the entire bridge structure in order to be able to do this.
The video has helped us, and that failure analysis program will help us a great deal.
QUESTION: Are you talking about that CNN video, that -- that security camera that starts at one end. You see the bridge go, boom, boom, boom?
ROSENKER: Yes. Yes. That's been very, very helpful to us.
QUESTION: Mr. Chairman, I'm curious if, unlike some disasters that you folks have investigated, airplane disasters, et cetera, where the recovery mission is over by the time you get there -- for example, on airplane crashes, you know, within an hour or two, if you have survivors.
In this case, people are going in, still trying to recover bodies, still trying to deal with the current and the winds and all of that stuff. Does it make your job more difficult in these initial few days?
ROSENKER: Well, we -- we certainly have empathy for those courageous men and women who are out there working to try to recover those victims of this accident.
But we're able to work together. We can do work-arounds. We in no way, shape, or form want to impact in any negative way their work. And we are not doing that. But we're able to work around them. We're working together. This has been an extremely cooperative effort, what I would characterize as a textbook effort, between federal, state, and local officials here. And we're very grateful for that cooperation.
QUESTION: Mr. Chairman, do you ever...
(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: Can you recall another disaster like this? The Silver Spring bridge, is that the last time that we had this kind of catastrophic failure of a bridge?
ROSENKER: We have -- we have looked at a number of catastrophic failures over the 40 years we have been in business. But, clearly, this is the most recent one. It's been a number of years since we have seen something this -- this just tragic.
QUESTION: And you know that this bridge -- there's -- obviously, there's been a lot of talk of this being structurally deficient. When you hear things like the corrosion of the bearings that has been going on for years, corrosion of the steel around the joints, fatigue cracks in the approach span, are any of those red flags, or is this just part and parcel of what we have upon 80,000 bridges across the country?
ROSENKER: We're going to be taking a very careful look. We just received those documents about two hours ago.
And for me to tell you that there are significant issues within this report would be prejudging and doing analysis. And we don't do that at the site.
What I will tell you, though, is, we will go line by line of that report to understand where the failures were, if there were failures, and understand what we can do to prevent that from happening. Again, we will be looking also at all of the protocols in the National Bridge Inspection Program to make sure that they are rigorous enough, to make sure that they are robust enough to prevent this type of thing from happening.
QUESTION: From the video, can you tell where this catastrophic failure occurred, on which side? Witnesses had early said it was from the opposite perspective of the video that the catastrophic failure began. But do you have any indication of that?
ROSENKER: This gives us a good impression. I don't want to tell you exactly, because the -- the failure analysis program is going to help us as well, in addition to this video.
QUESTION: But it sounds like you think you already have an indication.
ROSENKER: We have -- we have a good start.
QUESTION: Opposite side of the video?
ROSENKER: A good start.
I don't want to begin to prejudge. We have to enhance this video. We may see something in the video that you can't see with the naked eye.
QUESTION: Mr. Chairman, the state was out here detailing all of the inspections and reports that have been done on this bridge over the years. It certainly seems that it got a lot of attention. There's nothing that you have found so far that indicates that they weren't giving this bridge attention, right? It seems they were inspecting it annually, looking at it.
ROSENKER: We have three sets of inspection reports. We want to really take a look at those inspection reports before I would make a comment that it hasn't been detailed enough.
They may well have been doing everything that has been prescribed in the National Bridge Inspection Program. That may well not be enough. We may be making a recommendation that it needs to be more rigorous. We may not. That set of protocols may well be adequate. There may be some failures in the reporting system that was done here in Minneapolis.
We're certainly going to look at every single one of those reports. We're going to go back even further than the three that we have right now, going from 2000 to 2007. We will probably be looking for this last decade of reports as well, and maybe more.
QUESTION: What about construction work on the bridge that's been going on for quite a while? What stress could that have put on the -- the structure itself?
ROSENKER: We are going to look at the construction records, the maintenance records, contracts. We are going to be talking to the contractors that have been doing this work.
The Department of Transportation in Minnesota will be a party to our investigation. That means they will be helping us do fact- finding, not analysis. They will be doing fact-finding with us. Also, the Federal Highway Administration will also be a party to this investigation.
The police department here in Minneapolis, many of the first- responder organizations, the fire department, they will be working with us as parties to the investigation, so that we can understand how well the first response was. Our first indication is, this was done extremely well, and we can learn a great deal from this.
QUESTION: Can you reiterate on where you got the video and, in layman's terms, as much as possible, how you are going to deal (INAUDIBLE) video with the software to get some ideas as to what maybe really caused this...
The video was provided to us by the Minneapolis Police Department. The software program that we talk about is provided to us. And this is a software program that would be -- we would have to try to create. We would try to build. It would take us months in order to do this. We were fortunate, once again -- one, we were fortunate with the video. Secondly, we were fortunate that this program existed, because one of the employees of the Federal Highway Administration did this failure analysis as part of his Ph.D. program. So, we were extremely pleased when they came to us and said, we already have this.
QUESTION: Does that pull back now the statement you made earlier today that you thought a year before you might know what really happened?
What -- what this will do is provide us a much speedier on-scene aspect of this and a speedier investigation of the facts, in gathering all of the facts. The analysis will normally take us about a year after we get all of the facts.
But I am optimistic that we can do this a lot faster today than I did -- than I was earlier this morning, when we didn't know we had this failure analysis program.
QUESTION: Now, the program you're talking about is the model that was made of the bridge...
QUESTION: ... in the 2001 report?
ROSENKER: I don't know when.
ROSENKER: I don't -- no, no. The model was made by an employee of the Federal Highway Administration. And he did it as part of a Ph.D. Program at the University of Minnesota.
QUESTION: Right. And the University of Minnesota did this failure analysis with Mn/DOT and then did a report in 2001 where they hooked strain gauges up to the bridge and modeled it in...
ROSENKER: Is this part of the program?
QUESTION: Am I right?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's part of it, part of the inspection.
ROSENKER: It's part of the inspection, but it's -- it's not the exact program we're talking about.
QUESTION: So, this model is specific to this bridge?
QUESTION: But was that the same model was used in that report or...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Correct. ROSENKER: Yes.
And when was that provided to you?
ROSENKER: We learned about it, I believe, it was today, earlier today, after I had spoken with you earlier this morning.
QUESTION: And who is the gentleman who was involved in making this?
ROSENKER: It was one of the Federal Highway Administration...
QUESTION: Can you name him by name?
ROSENKER: We may do that later, but not now. He actually may be helping us...
BLITZER: All right, Mark Rosenker, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, briefing everyone on this investigation, which is only just beginning, so many questions that have to be answered. There is outrage in the country right now over the nation's infrastructure.
And there's a strange coincidence unfolding at the same time. The same day the bridge collapsed in Minnesota, two U.S. senators rolled out a plan to try to improve the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
Both of those senators are joining us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
Senators, thanks so much for joining us.
Senator Hagel, this is a question a lot of people are asking. Does it have to take a tragedy, a horrendous issue like this, to get the U.S. government moving to deal with the nation's infrastructure? Because, as you and Senator Dodd know, there have been so many opportunities over the years that have been wasted.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: Well, Wolf, unfortunately, what we saw happen in Minnesota yesterday is just a reminder of the reality that we are facing in our country today with our infrastructure problems. We have got over 160,000 bridges that are in some need of maintenance.
And it's going to require a vast amount of resources to fund not just the maintenance, but staying ahead of our competitors and making sure that the needs of our society are met with infrastructure. And that's why Senator Dodd and I introduced legislation. We think it's a big, bold new idea in how we do that.
And it just, as you said, was a coincidence that it happened as it did in Minnesota, the tragedy that we saw unfold. That's what we are attempting to try to address with the legislation that we introduced yesterday.
BLITZER: Senator Dodd, this is an issue, literally, that involves the life and death of a lot of people. People, hundreds of thousands, millions of people, cross these kinds of crumbling bridges every single day. And the federal government seems to not really step up to the plate.
SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, it's -- first of all, Chuck and I want to extend our sympathies, obviously, to those who may have lost their lives and those who are missing, and our compliments, by the way, to the first-responders, the firefighters and others, who have done a magnificent job in responding as quickly as they did.
But, as Chuck pointed out, you have got 614 transit systems that are desperate in need of help, one out of every three roads. Chuck mentioned 160,000 bridges here. We have water systems and waste water systems that, on average, Wolf, on average, are 100 years old in this country.
We have worked on this bill for the last year-and-a-half. It wasn't -- the coincidence was yesterday announcing it, but spent a lot of time with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and others on a bipartisan basis putting this together.
DODD: And the major problem, Wolf, is funding.
And what we have come up with here is a bank on infrastructure to lure private capital through this bank, through specific bonding or general bonding here, to really get into the maintenance and building.
BLITZER: Senator Dodd...
BLITZER: ... in your state of Connecticut, the most recent statistics, 33 percent of the bridges are described as obsolete.
BLITZER: There could be a horrendous tragedy unfolding even there.
And here's the -- here's the concern, that so much of the money that is funding these highways around the country and -- are seen as pork-barrel projects, earmarks, as they're called. And, as you know and Senator Hagel knows, your study that was done recently said that's the biggest problem. The money is there, but it's not going to the right places. DODD: That's a good part of it. And you're correct.
In Minnesota, I saw where some 450 bridges in the state of Minnesota that are identified as being deficient. The Mianus River Bridge, you may recall, Wolf, back a number of years ago, on Route 95 in Connecticut, collapsed. And we lost several lives as a result of that.
What we're trying to do, Chuck and I, is not only identify the problem, but how do you come up with a unique and special kind of way to fund a lot of this? Because, frankly, through the appropriation process and earmarking, you can't begin to deal...
BLITZER: All right.
DODD: ... with the cost of all of this.
BLITZER: Senator Hagel, in Nebraska, 25 percent of all the bridges in your state are described as obsolete.
In the minute we have left, just tell us how you are going to fund all of these problems around the country, because, as we see, the life and death of a lot of Americans potentially are at stake.
HAGEL: Well, the first thing that we must address, like any problem, Wolf, is accepting the reality of what's out there. And that is going to require tens of billions, really hundreds of billions of dollars, in funding.
And what we have come up with is an idea that's pretty novel. And that is, knowing and realizing that the federal government can't possibly find all the funding required, is to really leverage private- sector moneys with public-sector credit, and through this infrastructure bank and through tax credit, longtime -- and long-term bonds.
And we think it makes sense. We worked with the Wall Street people over the last two years on this. We know we're going to have to find the funding to address these big issues. And it's not just bridges and roads. It's water systems. It's -- it's every element of our infrastructure.
BLITZER: All right.
Senators, we -- unfortunately, we have got to leave it right there.
Let's hope that this shakes things up, because it needs shaking up.
Senator Hagel, Senator Dodd, thanks very much.
Let's check in with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I'm not a mathematician, but I think the number of dollars that we have spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is right at $600 billion.
The question, in light of the fact that proper maintenance of our roads and bridges has been neglected for years is: How do we get our government to do the right thing? Now, there's something to get your arms around.
Nina writes: "Jack, we haven't invested in infrastructure in this country since Lyndon Johnson's time, actually. Then, it was guns and butter. Now it's just guns, no butter. The butter seen as fat is our bridges, roads, and rails."
Karen in Indiana: "Bush and our Congress fiddle, while our infrastructure fails us; $200 billion, a drop in the bucket, compared to $450 billion wasted in Iraq" -- I think it's actually more than that -- "some of it on their infrastructure. Vote for anybody, except the ones currently in office."
James in Tennessee: "In the early '90s, I sat on the Highway Users Federation board. One of our missions was to get the feds to release funds slated for the maintenance of the federal highway and bridge system. I retired before anything positive happened in that respect. And I have been out of the loop ever since. You might look into how much unreleased funding is presently available and what it's being used for, if it's not being used for the purposes intended."
Stan in Hays, Kansas: "Congress is spending billions each month to rebuild infrastructure in Iraq. Can't they find a few bucks for the folks in Minnesota and the rest of this country that's falling apart?
Jim in California: "The solution is simple. Revive Roosevelt's National Recovery Act, begin putting people to work rebuilding our country. So many of the infrastructure elements in this country were developed in the '30s and '40s under Roosevelt, and then left to rot in front of our smoke-filled eyes. The country is 80 years behind the curve."
And Jeanne writes my favorite letter: "On this question and almost every question you have asked in the longest while, there is but one answer. Vote out and each and every elected official each and every election year. You need to run this e-mail daily on your show until we start thinking about it. If we would do that, the officials in government would begin to listen to us."
Jeanne, I think you might be on to something -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.
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