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Published: Saturday, 8/4/2007

Muddy water, debris make search dangerous for divers in Mississippi River

A diver searches a car in the rubble of the I-35W bridge, at left. Dive conditions were hazardous, with a visibility of only about six inches.
A diver searches a car in the rubble of the I-35W bridge, at left. Dive conditions were hazardous, with a visibility of only about six inches.

MINNEAPOLIS - Divers near the collapsed bridge felt their way through the murky Mississippi River Friday, pressing within inches of submerged cars to read their license plates. The current pushed them around, and over their heads, pieces of steel hung precariously from the wreckage. The fire chief called them "widow makers."

"The Mississippi is notorious for undercurrents and swift water under the surface anyway," Fire Chief Jim Clack said, "and when you drop a bridge into it, with all its pieces, that creates ... whirlpools and things that are all dangerous to divers."

Two days after the Interstate 35W bridge dropped into the river amid evening rush hour, a fifth death was confirmed with about 100 injured.

Divers were looking for as few as eight people still reported missing. Initial estimates had put the missing at as many as 30. One woman turned up safe at work, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said.

While the possibility of a lower death toll than first feared was good news, uncertainty about what they might find as they crawl through the wreckage has made the search psychologically draining.

"Nobody wants to find the carload of a family with small kids," said Sgt. Tony Waldo, head of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department water patrol unit. "Nobody wants to find the family that was going to the Twins game that night."

The divers work in teams, with one or two in the water while tethered to a partner above for safety. They have stayed above the bridge's sunken span, avoiding the heavy debris below, officials said.

Friday's search focused on the upstream side of the bridge, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulated the water level to try to alleviate the current's tug.

About 60 automobiles _ partially or fully submerged _ have been spotted around the giant chunks of concrete, broken steel and glass, Stanek said, adding that some vehicles are on top of one another. They cleared four cars Friday morning and found no bodies. A fifth was crushed beneath the others and couldn't be searched.

Divers were mapping out the wreckage and marking where the vehicles landed, then searching them and recording their license plate numbers.

With only about 6 inches of visibility, the divers wore plastic gloves and used what Hennepin County Sheriff's Capt. Bill Chandler called the "Braille method."

"They've got to feel their way around with the car right in front of their face," he said.

Their efforts are complicated by other debris in the water, including a pickup truck that had been submerged long before the bridge collapsed, said Anoka County Sheriff's Department Capt. Robert Aldrich.

"We go out to dive sites all the time to recover swimmers or individuals," Stanek said. "But here, we go back in and it's repetitive -30 minutes in, 30 minutes out. And you do this 16 hours a day," Stanek said. "This now is our second day of operation, and we're going to be here for an extended period of time."

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