MINNEAPOLIS – Divers searched the Mississippi River for bodies still trapped beneath the twisted debris of a collapsed bridge Thursday, as finger-pointing began over a report two years ago that found the bridge was "structurally deficient."
The official death count from Wednesday evening's collapse stood at four, but Police Chief Tim Dolan said more bodies were in the water. Hospitals officials said 79 others were injured.
A strong current and low visibility hampered the search, and divers were pulled out of the water briefly Thursday afternoon so the water could be lowered, said Inspector Jeff Storms of the sheriff's department.
Twelve vehicles had been located in the river, officials said.
"We have a number of vehicles that are underneath big pieces of concrete, and we do know we have some people in those vehicles," Dolan said. "We know we do have more casualties at the scene."
The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the midst of repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour. Dozens of cars plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River, some falling on top one of another. A school bus sat on the angled concrete.
The bridge is the state's busiest, and carries approximately 141,000 vehicles per day.
The White House said an inspection of the 40-year-old bridge in 2005 found problems. The Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability and was classified as "structurally deficient," transportation officials said.
The designation means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement. "It didn't mean that the bridge is unsafe," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.
Earlier, at the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said while the inspection didn't indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, "If an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday ordered an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs, but said the state was never warned that the bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired. Another inspection was scheduled for completion in September, and state officials said it has been inspected yearly since 1993.
"There was no call by anyone that we're aware of that said it should be immediately closed or immediately replaced," Pawlenty said. "It was more of a monitor, inspect, maintain, and potentially replace it in the future.
Around the country, a handful of states, including Arizona, Michigan, New Jersey and New Mexico, ordered inspections of their own bridges.
In the river, divers took down license plate numbers for authorities to track down the vehicles' owners. Getting the vehicles out was expected to take several days and involve moving around very large, heavy pieces of bridge.
As many as 30 people were reported missing, and the rescue effort had shifted to recovery.
Relatives who couldn't find their loved ones at hospitals gathered in a hotel ballroom Thursday for any news, hoping for the best.
Ronald Engebretsen, 57, was searching for his wife, Sherry. His daughter last heard from her when she left work in downtown Minneapolis Wednesday. Her cell phone has picked up with voice mail ever since.
"We are left with the hope that there is a Jane Doe in a hospital somewhere that's her," Engebretsen said.
As many as 50 vehicles tumbled into the river when the bridge collapsed, leaving those who could escape to scramble to shore. Some survivors carried the injured up the riverbank, while emergency workers tended to others on the ground and some jumped into the water to look for survivors. Fire and black smoke rose from the wreckage.
"People who were pinned or partly crushed told emergency workers to say 'hello' or say 'goodbye' to their loved ones," Dolan said.
Aron Dahlgren, 23, a University of Minnesota graduate student, was driving to his girlfriend's home when the bridge began to fall. He noticed overhead road signs in front of him start to sink — and then his car plummeted.
"That's the longest two or three seconds of your life," Dahlgren said. "That was the scariest place. I kept on thinking — I kept on questioning, was this how I was going to die. If I'd have left 30 seconds earlier, I'd have been over the water."
Jay Reeves was one of the first people on the scene after the collapse. He tried calling 911, but all the lines were jammed. Then, he heard the sounds of children's screams from the school bus.
"I opened my car door and was greeted by the screams of lots of kids. Screaming kids are good. That means they're alive and full of a lot energy," said Reeves, 39, a trained paramedic and the public safety coordinator for the Minnesota American Red Cross.
The children were sent back to his office, where he spoke to them and tried to calm them down while their parents were located. One frantic boy told him that his shoulder hurt, he said.
"I took his head in my hands and said 'you need to calm down. Take a deep breath and hold it,"' Reeves said.
The Homeland Security Department said the collapse did not appear to be terrorism-related, but the cause was still unknown. Federal officials announced Thursday that $5 million would be rapidly released to help with efforts such as re-routing traffic around the disaster site.
The first step of the federal investigation will be to recover pieces of the bridge and reassemble them, kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, to try and determine what happened, NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said.
Investigators also want to review video of the collapse, and were setting up a phone number for witnesses to call with information. A team of 19 people was coming to the scene to help with the investigation, he said.
"It is clearly much too early in the initial stages of this investigation to have any idea what happened," Rosenker said.
This week, road crews had been working on the bridge's joints, guardrails and lights, with lane closures overnight on Tuesday and Wednesday. In 2001, the bridge had been fitted with a computerized anti-icing system that sprayed chemicals on the surface during winter weather, according to documents posted on the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Web site.
The bridge is blocks from the heart of Minneapolis, near tourist attractions such as the new Guthrie Theater and the Stone Arch Bridge. As the steamy night progressed massive crowds of onlookers circulated in the area on foot or bicycle, some of them wearing Twins T-shirts and caps after departing Wednesday night's game at the nearby Metrodome early.
The steel-arched bridge, built in 1967, rose 64 feet above the river and stretched 1,900 feet across the water. It was built with a single 458-foot-long steel arch to avoid the need for piers that might interfere with river navigation. The depth of the water underneath the bridge is between 4 to 14 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The collapse was not expected to have a sizable impact on barge shipments of grain and freight. The stretch of the river is largely used by recreational boaters and seldom by shippers, who rely more on bigger locks south on the river, said Bill Gretten with the Army Corps of Engineers.