Dr. Michael Baden on Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," August 1, 2007. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Joining us is forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden.

Dr. Baden, obviously one of the big question for why this happened, the NTSB will get to the bottom of that, and that is not quite as urgent as what the doctors are facing tonight, which is the crisis to save lives. You have worked on accidents like this?

DR. MICHAEL BADEN, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: Yes. Twenty years ago a major bridge in the New York State throughway, the Fonda bridge in upstate New York collapsed during a rainstorm, and five cars went down into the Schoharie Creek, and 10 people died. I did the autopsies on those people for the New York state police.

There is still more to come here. They are going to work. These emergency personnel are going to work all through the night. They are going to start bringing up the cars. They are going to find— unfortunately, they may very well find some more decedents as well. The injured people mostly are now going to the hospitals.

The important thing will be to find out why it happened and how it can be prevented. In upstate New York, it turned out that scouring caused the collapse, which is the most common cause of bridge collapses.

VAN SUSTEREN: What's scouring?

BADEN: Scouring is when the water underneath the bridges, over the years, 30 years for the Fonda Bridge, removes the bedding, sufficient bedding of the waterway, to intrude on the footing of the bridge. The bridge collapses because the footing isn't strong enough after all the surrounding materials and the bed of the river gets washed away by the running stream, and this happens over years.

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm anxious to hear from the NTSB and the bridge experts on these questions. You see this bridge going down, 40-years-old, it doesn't seem particularly old when you see bridges that last so long, and can you see them lasting 100 years in some cities.

BADEN: So much depends — of course, in Minneapolis, they have severe changes of weather, the snow and the cold, and then the warm weather in the summer. Fortunately, they have an excellent medical examiner system in Minneapolis to look into the bodies.

VAN SUSTEREN: People may wonder why the autopsies if it seems rather obvious what happened. But you need to identify for the bodies, don't you?

BADEN: First, you have to identify the bodies, that's important, and the autopsies help in that, second to see what kind of injuries there are, to see what kind of preventative actions can be taken in the future. In all these things there are going to be lots and lots of civil litigations arising, and how long somebody lived, could they have been rescued, life expectancy will be important in that respect.

VAN SUSTEREN: Imagine the burden on a hospital, and ER. It is 6:05, it was an ordinary day in an ER, if there is such a thing, and suddenly at 6:05 the word goes out, "Get ready. We don't know what's coming, we don't know their injuries, we don't know what's needed, we don't even know what specialties."

BADEN: Regardless of Michael Moore and the whole healthcare industry in general, when it comes to emergency situations, the U.S. has tremendous set ups and abilities. The doctor who just spoke, his hospital is ready for any emergency that comes in, and most of these emergencies are going to be blunt force injuries, head injuries, partial drownings may come in. And they are set up, and they will get very good treatment on this emergency basis.

VAN SUSTEREN: You sure see the best of everything—people diving into the water to help each other. People working all night long tonight. You have got the people in the hospital, people on the scene dive into those dark waters.

BADEN: It's important in major disasters, as they said, to try to keep away onlookers. People who want to see what is going on should watch it on TV, and watch it on FOX, or whatever. Going to the scene just to look clogs up things that can interfere.

But it's amazing the kind of response there is to help people who are in trouble.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are these cities, pretty much — big cities, pretty much, coordinated with something like this? I know that during Katrina it was such a nightmare because you couldn't communicate by cell phone, there was no way. We were down there. There were problems even talking to people.

BADEN: With a disaster like Katrina, there are lots of problems that may not have been anticipated. But this is a very contained disaster. They have the hospital personnel there, they have the police, fire people, the emergency responders, and they are very set up for that. That part of it is good.

The massive disaster that spreads out in a far greater area is much more difficult to coordinate.

VAN SUSTEREN: But even in terms of the emergency room, how much can one hospital take in terms of an emergency room if all of a sudden you have got 50 patients that show up there?

BADEN: I would be the Emergency room in Belleview Hospital. Anything that happened in New York City, we were going to handle. And if we fill up our beds, then there are other hospitals around that would cooperate.

And the ambulance services will go to a hospital that isn't as crowded as one that may be overcrowded.

VAN SUSTEREN: In terms of dealing with people, there is probably going to be some blunt force injury here, people getting banged around in cars and stuff. And then people with injuries related from water.

BADEN: That's right. They are going to have to take all that into account. They can do that, the aspiration of water, the injuries to the heads, and extremities.

A very important thing is what the mayor has set up, is a place for the families to go who are looking for their loved ones. That becomes a big crisis is to how you deal with families who don't know whether a loved one is on the bridge or not on the bridge. And that will work out.

But I think by tomorrow afternoon they should probably have a much better idea of how much how many are injured, how many are missing, how many have deceased.

VAN SUSTEREN: And there will be all the examination into all sorts of things, including the design of the bridge...


VAN SUSTEREN: ...whether weather played any role, like the heat and the freezing cold winter, and the stress fractures, everything.

BADEN: When this happens, it becomes as important as the Fonda bridge. They learn a great deal how to inspect and check and set rules for other bridges. Our bridge structures, the infrastructure is getting old in this country. The Fonda bridge was 30-years-old.

VAN SUSTEREN: The one you worked on.

BADEN: The one I worked on. This is 40-years-old.

VAN SUSTEREN: And so what have they done with the bridge that you worked on?

BADEN: They rebuilt the span with deeper footing, so that the scouring effect, the water washing away the sand at the bottom over 20 years, isn't going to affect it in the future. And this is a prerequisite for other bridges that are being built.

VAN SUSTEREN: We look at this video, and I think there is even more possible injuries in terms of burns. That tractor-trailer on fire, people even trying to rescue and say the person inside the cab, what about those injuries?

BADEN: Burn injuries — there may be some people who may have died of heart attacks. Older people get caught up in this may die of a heart attack while falling in their car into the water.

So, that's one of the reasons that the autopsies are very important, is to find out what happened, how they died, how to prevent it in the future. And the NSTB, the design people, the engineers, are going to learn a lot from this and what kind of standards to set for future brings, and whether they can do anything about current bridges to prevent this from happening.

VAN SUSTEREN: What a heartbreak — 6:05 rush hour, you are driving home. The last thing in the world you would expect driving across a bridge. The weather looks clear. Everything seems fine, and then suddenly everything gets turned upside down.

BADEN: And also, as you point out, they will have to find out what work was being done on the bridge. Is it possible that some of the work on the bridge may have contributed to this? It doesn't sound that way, but that, certainly, will be another area they are going to look into.

VAN SUSTEREN: But it's interesting, oftentimes, when you look at these big catastrophes, it's not just one thing, it's a combination. It's the pilot who didn't have enough sleep, and the fact it's a little icy. It's never one thing, it's always the combination.

BADEN: You're right. They found in the Fonda investigation three different things that went wrong to cause the bridge to collapse.

Here, too, they will probably find ways to improve future bridge structures, and to improve on the ones that now exist, because we have got thousands of bridges in the United States that are getting old. And they have got to be looked at, and they will get instructions from the investigation — what to do with the present bridge about cracks and about other factors that might contribute to fatigue and collapse of the bridge.

VAN SUSTEREN: As I talk, I think that while we have the warm and nice studio here in New York City looking at these horrible pictures, there are people right now who are doing really heroic things — jumping in that water trying to check things out, saving lives...

BADEN: There are a lot of heroes out there, absolutely. A lot of heroes right now that we are looking at. We don't know their names, and may never know their names.

VAN SUSTEREN: And they are not looking for credit. They just want to save a life. It is amazing.

BADEN: This brings out the best in humanity in people, as well as the horror of what happened.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dr. Baden, thank you, sir.

BADEN: Thank you.

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