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Sudden Collapse: What Went Wrong?

Aired August 2, 2007 - 23:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: It is all happening just over my shoulder a few blocks away.
Four people are known dead. Late word tonight, authorities are now reporting eight people are unaccounted for. That is down from 30. It's unclear whether that's good news or bad, whether people thought missing have been located alive or a lot of bodies have now been identified and simply not announced. We do not know.

Luckily, we've been discovering some remarkable stories of survival mixed in with moments of terror and loss and we're going to bring that all to you in the hour ahead.

We'll also hear from heroes on the river, on the bridge and on the shore who saved a lot of lives. Strangers reaching out to help other strangers.

We'll investigate also the troubled history of the I-35 West bridge along with others around the country.

First though, how it all began at the height of rush hour at the end of a hot summer day.


COOPER (voice-over): Six o'clock on Wednesday evening, rush hour in Minneapolis -- cars, trucks, buses, crawl across the I-35W 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 the bridge is in the Mississippi River. Half of it is on the ground. And I fell probably about 30 feet, 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.


VOICE OF KALEIGH SWIFT, PASSENGER ON SCHOOL BUS: Momma, the bridge broke when we were crossing it. Everybody -- everybody is scared and crying. Are you there, momma? Momma, are you there?


COOPER: Others described a deathly silence immediately after the deafening sound of the bridge coming down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After it had collapsed, it was eerily 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 RT 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.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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-35W 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 (on camera): An awful lot of goodness we have seen here in the last 24 hours.

More now on those first images from the scene of a school bus dangling from the crushed roadway.

When the bridge collapsed, 52 children were on that bus. They were on their way to a summer field trip. With them was a counselor named Jeremy Hernandez. He's being called a hero today for making sure that all those kids -- every one of them -- got off the bus and the bridge alive.

Here's Jeremy Hernandez in his own words.


JEREMY HERNANDEZ, DAY CARE COUNSELOR: 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 then it went down again. Then it crashed. And it stopped.

And then you could hear kids like moaning and crying. And the dust was in the air. you couldn't see the kids yet though. And then when the dust settled down, they all just started screaming, screaming, we're going to go in the river! We're going to go in the river!

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 lining 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 that were on the streets right below it.


COOPER: Well, Jeremy wasn't the only one to rescue the kids. Gary Babineau also made sure they were safe. He's a survivor himself. He was driving on the bridge, coming the opposite way from the bus when it collapsed.

I spoke to him earlier today.


COOPER: Gary, you were on the bridge just a little after 6:00. What happened?

GARY BABINEAU, SURVIVOR: The section just dropped, it was like it just disappeared and my truck was just freefalling. And when we hit, we hit hard, you know. It's not -- the bridge didn't, you know, didn't -- it wasn't easy on me.

And my truck did a nose dive. It came down in the front of the truck and it did a complete nose dive. And I ended up halfway off of the my section of concrete and half on. The bed of my truck was completely off the section of concrete and it was lower than the next piece that we broke off of and there were cars up there. I was about to get out of my car, and there were cars on the incline above me and the cars started falling down. I could hear them screeching down the incline.

COOPER: We have a picture of your truck on the bridge. Were you afraid your car was going to get smashed by another car?

BABINEAU: Yes. I was afraid -- there was a black truck and a white truck on the side of me. And then there was a couple of cars in that pit where my truck looks like it's backed up into. There's a couple cars in that pit that were falling down, so. And if you see that white car -- I got out of my truck and I felt my back, because I thought my back might have been broken, and I got up, I could walk, I ran to the front of my truck because I didn't want anything falling on me from that incline.

And if you see that white car, that's the lowest car there and that's the one that didn't fall. I couldn't believe that that was the one that didn't fall and all the other ones are in the pit, you know.

And so I get out of my truck. There's another lady that got out of one of the cars that was on my section. And we walked to the edge, you know, we walked and kind of climbed up, you know, the little incline that we were on.

And I looked over and heard the screaming, you know, children from the bus. So we got out of the -- we got off of that piece of concrete.

COOPER: How far from the bus were you at that point?

BABINEAU: We were -- well, if you look on the picture, it looks probably about 30 feet, 40 feet, but they're on the other side. They're on the southbound lane, I'm on the northbound lane.

So we get off and I run under the bridge, where you can see the bridge is coming down, where the incline is where the cars are falling off, I ran under that bridge right away, got over to the bus, climbed up onto the other section of bridge and there was somebody handing kids down out of the bus. You know, kids screaming, you know, yelling, crying, some of the them were just completely in shock and weren't saying anything. And we were, literally carrying the kids over to the safest spot where we could get them down which was about you know, 7, 8, 9 feet down to the street level, and we were handing kids down. I jumped down to the street level after I realized we needed more people down there grabbing the kids because there were so many kids. You know, 50 to 60 kids, it's just unbelievable and they're all crying, screaming, you know. And a couple of them are bloody, stuff like that.

And I had a couple of the kids, you know, just lean over the railing of the bridge and I said I promise I will catch you, just trust me, you know.

And it's not like they had a fall a long way, they just had to lean over so they were almost falling and then I could grab them. And the kids started doing that. The kids that looked like they could run, I just run, you know, as fast as you can towards all the other kids. The ones that couldn't, I handed off to people that were coming down to help and I would just go for the next kid.

I was so glad to see all those kids getting off that bridge, fairly quickly.

COOPER: And at the same time, you think you may be injured. Your back is hurting you a lot. I mean, is it just adrenaline getting you through this?

BABINEAU: It was pure adrenaline going through. It was like nothing I've ever been through before, probably nothing I'll ever see again. And the adrenaline was just going crazy. I've never felt that before in my life.

COOPER: How many other people were on the bridge around you at the time you got out of your vehicle? You said you saw that one woman.

BABINEAU: I only saw that one woman on that section. And we got off, you know, fairly quickly because I saw all those cars fall and I saw that there was more cars up there. And you know, I saw my truck, you know, crunched. It looked like someone tried to fold it. It was just me and that other woman that right away and we just got off the bridge as quickly as possible.

And that's when I heard the screams from the kids and I just knew that I had to get over there.

COOPER: Well, it's remarkable you had the presence of mind not only to help her and help yourself, but also to help all those kids on the bus.

Gary, I appreciate you telling your story. Thank you so much, I'm so glad you got out OK.

BABINEAU: Yes, no problem.


COOPER: A remarkable story. As we said tonight, the 35W once carried more than 141,000 cars and trucks and buses and it may take years to replace it. 360's Tom Foreman has been looking into what that means to all of those drivers.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Imagine the main road where you live being wiped out. That's what's happened in this area of about 3.5 million people.

And look what swirls around this bridge. Here's the Metrodome down here where the Twins play. The Vikings will play soon. There's downtown. There's a major university down here. And right in the middle of it all is this bridge -- 200,000 people a day going across it.

It's almost two football fields over the water alone. It's more than 60 feet above the water with nine or ten feet or more of water underneath that. Big project to replace it.

In the meantime though, what will the town do? The city is going to run more metro buses. They're also encouraging commuters to go across this bridge up on the north, on I-694.

Further south, they're converting a state road effectively into an interstate highway, telling people to get on this road. This will be the main access now that the bridge is gone and join on this to another major interstate that leads to downtown.

They're all patchwork measures, but it's designed to keep this town running while it gets over the shock of this catastrophe.


COOPER: Well, there has been a lot of shock. A lot of people though took action immediately after the bridge collapse.

Stacy Bengs is with me now. She's photo editor for the Minnesota Daily school paper at the University of Minnesota.

You grabbed your camera and went down there. What were your first impressions?

STACY BENGS, THE MINNESOTA DAILY PHOTO EDITOR: It was chaotic. There was people everywhere. The officers had just gotten there and we were just trying to look at the whole scene altogether.

COOPER: Had you had ever seen anything like it?

BENGS: I've never seen anything like that. No.

COOPER: You took a lot of photographs of the rescue boats.


COOPER: What was your assessment of the rescue operation at that point?

BENGS: It was -- they were just trying to I think assess the whole situation. We just went down there to shoot as much as we could and document the whole experience.

COOPER: We're also seeing some of your photos in which it's not just rescue workers, professionals who are trying to help people, it's civilians.

BENGS: yes.

COOPER: People who were just there.

BENGS: There were so many civilians on there, and they were so good to everybody. They were coming down hills. They were just running and trying to help as many people as they could.

COOPER: It's got to be -- you know, it's always a strange thing when you're looking at a scene like this through your camera lens and then to see it also with your other eye as a person, not as a reporter. How do you -- what are you thinking about it today as you look at the pictures?

BENGS: Looking at the pictures, it's almost surreal. You know, last night was such -- there was so much chaos. And looking at the photos today and seeing them online and a seeing them printed, it's just unbelievable and to see that we actually were like living that and saw it through our lens is unbelievable.

COOPER: All right, well Stacy, appreciate you sharing your photos with us.

BENGS: Thank you.

COOPER: Thanks very much. Good luck in your career as a photographer.

BENGS: Thank you.

COOPER: Well, a lot to talk about in the hour ahead. Similar -- a lot of tragedies have occurred recently in the U.S., similar to what happened here.

Here's the raw data. In 2002, 14 people were killed in Oklahoma after a barge caused a bridge to collapse.

A year before, there was another accident involving barges that led to the collapse of a bridge in Texas. Eight people died there.

In 1987, 10 people were killed when a New York highway bridge gave way.

And in 1980, 35 people died when part of the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Tampa fell.

We're going to be looking at the safety of bridges across the country in the hour ahead.

When we come back, a closer look at problem bridges here, across the country and almost certainly on a highway near you.


COOPER (voice-over): They called it deficient, but let it stay open. And it's far from unique.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do have a major problem.

COOPER: The state of bridges and why you might want to choose another route to work.

You're paying billions, but the bridges are crumbling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unfortunately we're saddled with an administration that shorted us on the last highway bill.

COOPER: So the president's to blame? Is it really that simple. No, we're keeping them honest, only on 360.




Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse

On November 7, 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state collapsed. Miraculously, the only loss of life was a Cocker Spaniel.

Source: University of Washington


COOPER (on camera): When the Tacoma Narrows Bridge came down and what would turned out to be a lifesaving lesson for future engineers, the bridge was nearly empty.

Sadly, yesterday, that was not the case. And as for the lessons to be learned, they will be bitter ones. Did it have to happen this way?

Tonight, we're "Keeping them Honest." Here's CNN's Randi Kaye.


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 is the one part of this that's extremely troubling.

KAYE (voice-over): 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, MNDOT, do about it?

DAN DORGAN, STATE BRIDGE ENGINEER, MNDOT: The outcome of that was two choices for MNDOT. 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 MNDOT.

MARY PETERS, 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, MNDOT 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.

(on camera): 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 you wouldn't you see because it's underneath.

KAYE (voice-over): Stehly isn't pointing fingers at MNDOT, 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: Yes, it can't let it happen again. Is anything being done about the system failure?

KAYE (on camera): Well, a plan, probably, Anderson, isn't too far off because a lot of people want change. The governor is demanding a review. He wants to talk with all of the agencies involved.

But MNDOT, who we talked quite a bit about in that story, really has an interesting take on it. They're actually trying to point out that this bridge isn't the only bridge that has these structural deficiencies, as they're called. They made a point of announcing today that of the 13,000 bridges here in this state that span 20 feet or more, more than 1,100 of them are actually classified with this structural deficiency, and that's about 8 percent of the bridges here.

So for some reason they're making that point. Obviously they do need a plan to make sure that it doesn't happen again with some of these other bridges.

COOPER: Certainly.

Randi, appreciate that. Thanks for reporting.

COOPER: Among the welcomed photos of survivors we've been seeing today, we've also started getting pictures of the four known victims.

You're looking at one of them. Patrick Holmes from Mounds View, Minnesota. This is what the local paper, the "Star Tribune," wrote about him. He was heading home to Mounds View after a day of studying neck and back pain as an exercise therapist in Bloomington, Minnesota. As usual, he drove his Saturn sedan across the Interstate 35W bridge shortly after 6:00 p.m. He was an amateur ball player. He was married. He had two young children. Patrick Holmes was just 36 years old.

It has clearly been a long day for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. We know he's been very busy all day. Obviously, these last 24 hours. We're very glad that Mayor Rybak takes the time to speak with us tonight.

Thanks very much for being with us. We're so sorry for what happened to your city.

MAYOR R.T. RYBAK, MINNEAPOLIS. Yes. You just put on the notice about Patrick Holmes. I spoke with Jennifer, his wife, who's a remarkable woman.

COOPER: How is she doing?

RYBAK: She's doing all right. But she -- everybody grieves differently. And I thin in her case, she -- especially with her children, needs some privacy and so we're asking people to give them space.

So we're asking people to help us allow us customized grief. There will be people who will want to come out and talk about it and that will be helpful. Some, like the Holmeses, want to be with each other for right now.

COOPER: It's so understandable.

What do you say to a family? I mean, as the mayor, as a citizen, what do you -- how do you deal buy that?

RYBAK: There's obviously no way to make any sense of any of this. I think the best you can do in a situation like that, is when you're a mayor, you have to say that you're here for the community. You have to let them know that no one can understand their grief, but you are here to say that people around the country are with them on it.

And in some way, this remarkable person who was their husband is now known by many other people. Now that's no solace on it. In the case of the Holmeses, I talked about when my father died as a kid and what that could mean for the kids, and offered my help, talked about being raised by a single mom and what a remarkable woman she is and I know she'll succeed at that, but nothing you say can make sense.

COOPER: What is happening down there right now? I mean, what's happening on the bridge now?

RYBAK: Well, the operation continues as it has since it occurred, but we're doing it in a very painful way.

We obviously want it do everything we can to minimize the loss of any more life. So that obviously also means the responders. So we're being very tactical as we go in the water.

This is one case where it actually helps to have man be able to manage nature. So we're using the dock system to control the water. COOPER: Lower the water.

RYBAK: Lower the water so the divers can be more effective on that. But there are huge piece of infrastructure in the water and so we want to make sure that we're not endangering them so we're being very careful about that. However, we're continuing the operation and we will do that.

COOPER: I got to say, from my vantage point as an outsider who just arrived today, I mean, this -- you seem to have it very much under control. I haven't been to the scene itself, but from this distance, even access to the scene, it seems very orderly. Have you learned from Katrina? Have you learned from 9/11?

RYBAK: If you start with the idea that this was a horrible tragedy beyond anything we can deal with, the rest of it has gone as well as it could be. And that's in large part because we started with a plan.

I came in as mayor right after 9/11, we already had a good plan, but we really then went into effect. We did emergency preparedness training where for three days we went through simulated incidents. We then revised that on and on.

Katrina taught us a lot.

And so when this happened, we immediately went to the command center in the basement of city hall. Rocco Forte (ph), who led that operation, stayed in command. I directed after he did the tough work. Everybody knew their role. And we did what we had to do.

COOPER: How concerned are you about the other bridges in this city?

RYBAK: Well, I'm concerned about bridges all across America. But this is not just because of this incident. Like many mayors across the country who have been sounding the alarm about our infrastructure. These things that we take for granted, the roads we drive across, the streets that we're on, the bridges are things that don't have constituencies. And so when times get tough, no one is standing up and yelling for them.

Well, I hate to say it, but these are the only times that are in those teachable moments. We need to have that on a sustained level ongoing. And we have a serious infrastructure challenge in this country. I hope, sooner or later, other people will hear what mayors like me have been saying for a long time.

COOPER: Mayor Rybak, appreciate your time. Thank you very much. I'm so sorry that we're here under these circumstances.

RYBAK: Well, we're happy you're here.

COOPER: Thank you very much.

Just ahead, Minneapolis is not the only state with aging bridges, as the mayor was talking about. Many of them in dire need of repair. Bridges that could be -- well, could provoke real problems down the road. What will it cost to fix them and why hasn't that money been spent? We'll follow the money all the way to Washington, tonight. "Keeping them Honest," next on 360.



Cost of Repair

It would cost $94 billion dollars a year, for 20 years, to repair all structurally deficient bridges in the United States.


COOPER: As we reported earlier, the I-35W bridge was one of those structurally deficient bridges. We still don't know and we won't know for quite some time exactly what caused yesterday's disaster here in Minneapolis.

What is certain is that it's well documented that the bridge, just like many others across the country, was far from being in top condition.

So how did we get to this point? "Keeping them Honest," for us tonight, we are following the money with CNN's Joe Johns.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The scope of the problem is staggering.

PETE RUANE, AMERICAN ROAD AND TRANSPORTATION BUILDERS ASSOCIATION: Of the nation's nearly 600,000 bridges, 150,000 of them, 25 percent are in need of repair.

JOHNS: That's Pete Ruane. He's head of the road builder's association, just so you know where he's coming from. He says the money being spent on repairing bridges and roads is coming up short. Way short.

RUANE: For example, at the federal level, there's a $20 billion per annum gap investment just to maintain the existing system. At the state and local level, it's an additional $25 billion. So in total, $45 billion short of just maintaining our existing system.

JOHNS: After the disaster in Minnesota, a lot of people are saying the federal government really blew it in 2005 when it passed a massive highways bill, loaded down like a Christmas tree with all kinds of costly special projects, but shortchanging roads and bridges by nearly $100 billion.

CASEY DINGES, AMERICAN SOCIETY OF CIVIL ENGINEERING: Even though it was a historic bill, at $285 billion over six years, believe it or not, that was $90 billion less than what was needed to maintain the current system that we have. So we actually lost ground on the last transportation bill.

JOHNS: Listening to members of Congress, you would think that next time around it's going to be different.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR (D), MINNESOTA: We're not going to settle for a bargain basement transportation bill.

JOHNS: But wait a minute. "Keeping them Honest," there's also a question of priorities here. It's not just about how much money the government spends, it's also about spending choices. At the state and federal levels.

(on camera): For example, a state legislator from Minnesota says, a few years ago, state transportation dollars were used to pay for new highway and construction projects rather than inspecting and maintaining existing roads and bridges.

(voice-over): Same thing when you're talking about federal money. Which is more important, fixing up existing interstate bridges or building new bridges, say the bridges to nowhere in Alaska. Remember the controversial earmark project that received hundreds of millions of your tax dollars? In fact, the highways bill contained more than $20 billion worth of earmarked projects.

STEVE ELLIS, TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE: Earmarks dilute the funding available for more critical projects. That when you're trying to direct the money back to your political pet project, that means that somebody else's essential work or some other location's essential work, whether it be bridge repair or road repair or a levee or whatever, isn't actually getting its funding.

JOHNS: No one is saying Congressional earmarks created the disaster in Minnesota, but there might be more money to fix up the bridges if Congress foregoes more of the flashy new projects.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: Well, as we said earlier, divers were pulled out of the river behind me today.

Coming up, the deadly reasons why and how divers train for these dangerous missions. We'll show you what it's like inside, underneath the water.

And later, the heroes, all the people who rose to the challenge when the bridge came down.



The Water Below

The water at the collapse site is between 7-8 feet deep. The temperature at the time of the disaster was around 84 degree Fahrenheit.

Source: Minneapolis Police Chief


COOPER: Eight feet of water may not seem like much until you're facing what the recovery teams in Minneapolis are facing right now.

Earlier today, Police Chief Tim Dolan told us -- and I 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." There are still people in the water.

Reaching those people is grueling work. Today we're told divers found and searched some 11 vehicles.

To give us an idea of what they are up against, we asked an experienced rescue driver to show us the dangers.


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 fluids, 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 now 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 in 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, I 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 (on camera): Well, divers went back into the water at 10:45 a.m. this morning, local time. They had to be pulled out hours later. The conditions were simply too dangerous. All the concrete, all the infrastructure which is in the water right now is creating these underwater eddies that make it very treacherous indeed.

On the water when the bridge gave way, we're going talk to a boat captain who watched the horror unfold right before his eyes. That's next.

And later, ordinary Americans, extraordinary rescues, the heroes who risked their lives to save others.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We carried people from the bridge. 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 onto a stretcher and then carry her to the ambulance, it's one of those things you're going to remember for a while.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So she was -- one of the victims was pregnant?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was she saying?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was completely out of it. She was maybe...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was moaning every once in a while...



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kind of flailing around, kind of.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was -- she wasn't looking good.


COOPER: We've heard so many stories from people like that who lent a hand in the wreckage. Some put themselves in harm's way to help others. Others badly wanted to, but it was all they could do to save themselves.

Today, Gary Tuchman was privileged, he says, to spend time with one of them. He's a man who is experiencing already what experts in the field call survivor's guilt. But as you'll see, and as Gary discovered, he has nothing to feel guilty about.


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?


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 into 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 of that?

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, because 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 their 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: Remarkable story. That was CNN's Gary Tuchman.

Now, a man with a unique perspective on yesterday. Charles Leekley. He was captain of the Minnesota Queen, a charter boat that was giving a tour on the Mississippi River yesterday evening. He joins me now.

What did you see?

CHARLIE LEEKLEY, PADDLEBOAT CAPTAIN: Well, we were coming southbound into the lock and probably about 150 yards away it collapsed in front of us while we were entering the lower St. Anthony lock, which is a lock chamber that would lower us down to the lower river gorge which is about a 23-foot elevation change.

COOPER: You've seen the video from the security camera of the collapse. They say it only took four is seconds. Did it seem that fast to you?

LEEKLEY: Yes, it did. And it was complete failure from end to end from what I could see. It rained down -- they say it's 65 feet, but I beg to differ with them, I think it might be a little bit higher than that off the river at the top deck.

COOPER: What did you do once it collapsed?

LEEKLEY: There was an eerie sense of -- there was an eerie calm. See, I couldn't believe that I had just witnessed that.

COOPER: People have said that...


LEEKLEY: And what -- what could have caused that.

COOPER: ... there was silence in some cases.

LEEKLEY: There was a very eerie silence. There was no one around. We were the only vessel -- people around, other than the lockmaster down here. And it rained down like a waterfall with the cars on top of it.

COOPER: You literally just saw the cars falling into the water?

LEEKLEY: Yes. Yes. A couple of cars that couldn't stop in time and went over the side, went over the embankment.

COOPER: Obviously, you've never seen anything like that?

LEEKLEY: No, certainly not. So I've been asked to describe it, what I saw, what I heard. There's no words to describe the sound. But it was a sense that I had just saw a lot of people get killed. And it wasn't -- very hard to -- very hard.

At that time, I watched my first mate Andy grab his cell phone. I went on to the Marine radio, VHF Channel 16, hailing frequency and called out may day, may day, may day. This is Minneapolis Queen. The Coast Guard receiver in St. Paul is some distance away, so I don't believe that call was heard, but it was heard all the way out to Lake Winnetonka.

COOPER: How long did you stay on the scene?

LEEKLEY: I immediately notified the lockmaster that I was going to proceed and enter the lock to render any assistance that we could possibly can and recommended that they lower us down to provide some assistance as we were the only people on the scene at the time.

And the lockmaster turned us out and told us to back up. Which turned to be a very wise decision on his part.

COOPER: Because there was so much debris in the water?

LEEKLEY: Well, there was debris in the water so close to the lock that it would have prevented us from making any maneuvering room to where we would have been a hindrance to the rescue effort if we were to be down there. They wouldn't have been able to close the lock doors with us there.

COOPER: Right.

LEEKLEY: And it would have been even more of a disaster.

COOPER: Just incredible.

LEEKLEY: But it was very, very frustrating not to be -- to be there and my responsibility was to the 48 passengers I had on board.


LEEKLEY: But nevertheless I feel as though -- what can you do? We then stayed along the lock wall. The police came, and indicated that they were going to commandeer the boat for the rescue effort. We entered the lock again, and they were already locked us up. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) were shut, they were going to lower us down, but they delayed the order after having surmised the situation down there and indicated -- and realized cooler heads prevailed.

COOPER: Right.

LEEKLEY: And said that it wouldn't be prudent to lower us down there to help.

COOPER: Just remarkable. I appreciate you coming on and talking about what you saw. Charles Leekley, thank you very much.

LEEKLEY: Sure. Thank you.

COOPER: Up next, some are trained professional, others good Samaritans. All of them, heroes tonight. The people who jumped in to help however they could in spite of the danger, when this special edition of 360 continues.



CHIEF TIM DOLAN, MINNEAPOLIS POLICE DEPARTMENT: It's going to be a very, very dangerous scene for some time. Recovery has started. Boats are on the water. But we also have people, like I say, on land that need to be recovered and recovered safely. So we ask for patience. We appreciate all the support that we're getting from throughout this state. And this will be -- this will be a long process.


COOPER: That was Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan.

The official death count right now is four. That number is expected to rise.

It was around this time last night that the rescue effort in Minneapolis transitioned to a recovery operation. Most survivors fled the wreckage or were pulled from it not long after the bridge collapsed. Some owe their lives to the first responders who were able to rush to the scene, from firefighters and paramedics, to good Samaritans.

Here's CNN's Ed Lavandera.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): When the I-35 bridge collapsed, Fire Captain Shanna Hanson was at home. She heard the sirens and literally lept into the terrifying scene on the Mississippi River.

CAPTAIN SHANNA HANSON, MINNEAPOLIS FIRE DEPARTMENT: I came across by the rail cars that you see and just went from one roof to the next, just working my way down.

LAVANDERA: After scaling down rooftops, Hanson jumped in the water and disappeared over and over, searching through submerged cars, but she would not find any survivors, only a 32-year-old woman who did not survive the fall.

Hanson eventually met the woman's family. It was the only time this 16-year fire department veteran showed any emotion.

HANSON: Said I'm very sorry for their loss and that -- I don't think I can -- to maintain professionalism, I'm just going to stop with that line of questioning.

LAVANDERA: But the first responders to this tragedy weren't all wearing uniforms. Two were union machinists, Chad Reichow and Jeremy Resendez, working the late shift in this metal plant. We caught up with them as they were about to start another day of work.

(on camera): You come -- going down this way, right here?

CHAD REICHOW, VOLUNTEER RESCUER: I came going down this way, yes. And then -- we all went outside and that's when we seen the bridge was down, you know, cars were everywhere. It was kind of -- it was like an earthquake, like it just crashed.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Chad and Jeremy worked with emergency crews pulling people out of the water.

There's one person, though, Chad can't stop thinking about. The only survivor he got a chance to talk to, but the only name he got was Reginald.

REICHOW: I just asking him if he was all right.

LAVANDERA: Chad was taking orders from a paramedic.

REICHOW: It's what the paramedic told me to do. He told me to keep asking him questions and make sure he's still responding.

LAVANDERA: And he's still wondering what happened to Reginald after he was taken away in an ambulance. And now Chad understands why first responders have trouble talking about their work and often say they're just doing their job.

HANSON: You are not a firefighter if you seek the limelight. I hope you guys realize how hard this is to stand up here.

LAVANDERA: The talking is tough. The helping comes easy.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Minneapolis.


COOPER: So many people pitching in when they could.

More of our special, "Sudden Collapse: What Went Wrong?" when we come back.


COOPER: Just some of the images that we have seen from I-Reports as well as local affiliates these last 24 hours. We're coming to you tonight from the roof of the bridge water loss overlooking I-35W.

We have seen so many pictures. No doubt, in the days ahead, we will see so many more and continue to hear the stories of those who did whatever they could to rescue those.

For our international viewers, "CNN TODAY" is next. Here in America, "LARRY KING" is coming up.

I'll see you tomorrow night.