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Driver makes dramatic underwater escape after bridge collapses

  • Story Highlights
  • Woman escapes from car; another jogs under bridge moments before collapse
  • Woman's car found at disaster site; she's safe at work
  • Number of people actually missing still unclear
  • First lady Laura Bush visits Minneapolis; president to visit Saturday
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MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota (CNN) -- Alicia Babatz was on her way to pick up her 2-year-old daughter Wednesday when she felt the bridge give way beneath her.


Alicia Babatz, 22, was in her car as it plunged into the Mississippi River. Her seatbelt left her bruised.

She said she thought she was going to die as her car crashed into the concrete and plunged into the water. Buckled in behind the wheel, she watched the water rise above her.

"I thought that for sure I was going to drown. I thought I was going to sink with my car," she said from her hospital bed Friday, her left shoulder bearing the bruised imprint of a seatbelt.

Fighting what she called "excruciating pain," Babatz, 22, escaped through a window and swam to the rubble of the collapsed bridge.

"I was crying for help, but there were cries for help all around me," she said.

It took Babatz about 30 minutes to get out of the water. She said she looked back, and her car was gone.

"It's still hard for me to believe that I took that fall, I went through all that ... but I'm here, and that, to me, is just amazing," she said. Video Watch Babatz describe her harrowing experience »

Survivor Lori Patterson also witnessed the Interstate 35W bridge collapse -- she was jogging under it moments before it crumbled. Patterson said she heard a loud explosion and turned around, thinking it was construction or dynamite testing.

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"It was eerily still and quiet. Like a movie set," she wrote in an e-mail she sent to friends and family letting them know she was not in danger.

Patterson said that as she watched the dust settle, she began to realize what had happened.

More than 100 people were injured Wednesday when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. Five people are confirmed to have died, but the toll is expected to rise as the underwater recovery effort goes on.

As divers searched the murky waters Friday, there was relief when one woman feared missing was found alive and well, the Hennepin County sheriff said.

The woman's car was found at the disaster site, but she was not. Investigators tracked her down Friday morning at her workplace, Sheriff Rich Stanek said.

However, Stanek would not say how many people are still missing.

Stanek had said Friday morning eight people were unaccounted for, but said later: "We're not convinced only eight are missing."

Minneapolis Police Department spokeswoman Ameilia Huffman had previously told CNN the sheriff's count was "speculative," and Police Chief Tim Dolan had estimated 20 to 30 people remained missing.

Four bodies were recovered Wednesday and one was recovered Thursday, Hennepin County Sheriff's Capt. Bill Chandler said at a Friday morning news briefing. The Minneapolis Fire Department recovered the fifth body from the bridge decking, he said. Photo See photos of the disaster »

At least 100 people have come to hospitals with injuries, said Dr. John Hick of the Hennepin County Medical Center. Authorities reported Thursday that at least 79 people were injured.

The number went up because some people waited before going to hospitals complaining of ailments from the collapse -- which is expected, once the adrenaline and initial shock from the experience wear off, Hick said.

Friday morning's recovery effort went more smoothly than anticipated, Stanek said.

Four submerged vehicles were checked and found to contain no victims, he said. A fifth was not checked because another car is on top of it; heavy equipment would eventually be brought in, he said.

Chandler said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had adjusted a nearby dam to drop the river's water level by 2 feet and was regulating the current to make it easier on the divers, whom Chandler directs.

Stanek said National Transportation Safety Board investigators had told him that 60 vehicles were visible at the collapse site.

The five people confirmed dead were all identified by Friday evening. They were Sherry Lou Engebretsen, 60, of Shoreview, Minnesota; Julia Blackhawk, 32, of Savage, Minnesota; Patrick Holmes, 36, of Mounds View, Minnesota; Artemio Trinidad-Mena, 29, of Minneapolis; and Paul Eickstadt, 51, of Moundsview, Minnesota.

Stanek said he has visited three times with missing people's family members at a nearby Holiday Inn.

"When you go over there, it's quite heart-wrenching," he said Friday morning. "These people just want some information. They have hope that something will come."

First lady Laura Bush visited the site Friday. "I'm so sorry," she said upon meeting Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and other officials. "If there's anything good about it, maybe we can look at other bridges."

She greeted and thanked police officers, firefighters and Red Cross volunteers. "God bless you all," she said.

President Bush, who on Thursday pledged federal aid to rebuild the bridge, will visit the disaster site Saturday.


The disaster prompted U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters on Thursday to urge all states to immediately inspect all bridges of the same design. There are about 750 of them across the United States, according to Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Transportation Department. (See the bridges in need of immediate inspection)

Peters on Friday ordered the Federal Highway Administration to offer federal help -- mostly likely in form of engineers -- to all 50 states to complete the inspections. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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