Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: A Disaster of Enormous Scope

Editor's Note: Jeff Goldblatt is covering the bridge collapse from Minneapolis. Continue checking back for updates to his reporter's notebook, and for the latest video and photos from the scene.

August 3, Minneapolis, Minn. — I've never been very comfortable going across bridges. As a kid, I can recall crossing the Cabin John Bridge, which spans the Potomac River and connects Virginia and Maryland, and worrying whether the bridge might give way. Same goes for the trips to the Maryland shore, when I crossed the Bay Bridge across the Chesapeake Bay in the family mini-van. So, how do you think I might feel from here on out, as the government, in the wake of the tragedy, has clarified that there are 75,000 bridges (out of about 600,000 bridges nationwide), designated “structurally deficient” just like the doomed 35 W span? I imagine many of you out there might now feel just as weary about driving across the bridge in your city.

Jamie Winegar, of Houston, Texas, is certainly entitled to be uncomfortable. She survived the 35 W catastrophe … somehow. With her husband Dennis at the wheel of a rented Chrysler, Jamie and her family had just wrapped up some shopping at the Mall of America when they hit rush hour traffic on the bridge. There were five people in the car, including Jamie's daughter, college-bound in the fall, participating in a soccer tournament in the area. Jamie told me she suddenly heard a loud “boom, boom, boom” and then saw the road beneath her disappear. She recounted as best she could how her husband slammed on the brakes, in a hopeless attempt to prevent their car from falling. By the time gravity gave out to the sheer mass of crumpled metal, Jamie figures their car had dropped 50 feet. But the metal they landed on wasn't the bridge itself. It was another car.

As she showed me pictures snapped on her daughter's camera after the collapse, she seemed well aware how she and her loved ones had cheated death. I asked her how she might feel crossing bridges in the future. She paused and seemed to digest the question with great serious before answering. “Nervous,” she replied. Then, she laughed, perhaps more aware of her vulnerability than ever before, and conceded she was, “nervous about driving at all, right now.”

We all have fears in our lives, notwithstanding the unlikely probability these demons will ever truly surface in our lives. That said, one of my fears is much rawer today because of the catastrophe here in Minneapolis.

August 2, Minneapolis, Minn.— The bridge collapsed quickly. Violently. Loudly. On the other hand, we’ve been told the recovery will proceed slowly, methodically, without any attention paid to the duration of the effort.

At a media briefing this morning along the banks of the Mississippi River, about a quarter of a mile downstream from the bridge collapse, Hennepin County Sheriff Stanek told reporters the recovery effort would take, “3 days, 4 days … 7 days if not longer.” Whatever it takes, he stressed.

In the aftermath of any tragedy, you hear people talk about the “silver lining,” or the “positives” arising out of all of the misery. In the case of the 35 W bridge collapse, there seems to be consensus among government officials and law enforcement, that there’s a sterling “silver lining” here: the heroic work of the first responders, some of whom jumped into the turbulent waters of the river immediately following the accident, while other responders continue to show their mettle by toiling without fanfare amid the sweltering heat to search for victims.

Catastrophes seem to bring out the best in so many: altruism, resolve and a can-do spirit. If it’s of any comfort to the families of those still missing, the emergency personnel here seem to take this mission to heart, keenly aware how unfair it is that this tragedy heartlessly robbed some of their precious loved ones in a matter of seconds.

August 1, Minneapolis, Minn. — I heard the first call to my Blackberry; it came in after 6:30 p.m. CT. In this business, constant communication is a must. However, it wasn’t until the ring of the second call, shortly thereafter, that I realized someone immediately needed me. I pulled my 20-month-old daughter off the changing table and rushed into the kitchen, where I would soon learn the news. The e-mail read "Urgent. Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis. Need you to get to O’Hare. 8:01 p.m. flight."

Reading that e-mail, I sprung into action. Typically, I keep a bag at-least semi-packed, for stories requiring a move at moment’s notice. I live fewer than 20 miles from the airport. My record drive time there is 14 minutes. I certainly pushed that record as I raced to O’Hare at a speed I care not to share with police nor my family.

Good thing I’m still in decent shape and know O’Hare very well after nearly eight years of working for FOX, based in Chicago. After parking, I quickly broke out into a full sweat, lugging a carry-on bag, a laptop computer, and my briefcase. A torrent of perspiration rushed down my face, my heart rate and my legs kicking into overdrive. Gasping for air, I finally made it to the ticket counter, where an agent told me I had two minutes to spare before the airline stopped issuing tickets.

At the gate, it was clear passengers were well aware of the bridge collapse. Some struggled to get through to relatives in the Twin Cities to ensure they were OK. Others speculated on the cause of the crash. Some watched nearby TVs in hopes of gaining any nugget of news about the tragedy which had befallen their community. Upon landing, the landscape may have changed, but much of the focus was the same ... to the TVs suspended from the ceiling at various points throughout the International Airport.

We improvised on our drive to get downtown. Usually, 35 W is a staple of our trips to the heart of Minneapolis. But the closure of this major interstate over the Mississippi River forced us to detour through the city. Minneapolis, at least in the summer, doesn’t shut down like many major downtowns. I was struck by the sight of several people, decked out in Minnesota Twins gear. Apparently, they had just attended the Twins game. They seemed carefree, poking each other with what seemed to be game programs, laughing as they crossed the intersection. Meanwhile, only blocks away, was a disaster of enormous scope, with tons of debris from the mangled mass of what was once the Stone Arch Bridge resting awkwardly in the Mississippi River.

Minneapolis resident Jerry Clark heard the thunder of the bridge collapse from his 19th story apartment building, which overlooks the Mississipi. His recollection of the aftermath, specifically one scene setter, sticks with me at this moment. Upon looking out his window, he saw a huge cloud of smoke and a dozen white balloons, or so he immediately thought. After the shock cleared, he realized those weren’t balloons floating over the river. They were airbags from vehicles involved in what Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has called "a catastrophe of major proportions for Minnesota."

FOX News has LIVE team coverage of the bridge collapse. Click here to see the weekend schedule. For another reporter's perspective, read Rick Leventhal's blog.

Jeff Goldblatt, a Chicago based reporter for FOX News Channel (FNC), joined the network in September 1999 from WTVJ-TV (NBC), in Miami, Florida, where he served as a general assignment and investigative reporter. You can read his complete bio here.