MINNEAPOLIS (AP) With all the victims believed to have been recovered, federal investigators gave state transportation officials clearance Aug. 21 to pull away the concrete deck of the collapsed interstate bridge.
The cleanup and rebuilding steps kicked into a higher gear a day after divers pulled the body of construction worker Gregory Jolstad from the Mississippi River, approximately three weeks after the eight-lane bridge fell Aug. 1.
“This community will now be on the road to recovery,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said at a briefing near the collapse site.
Before all 13 known victims were accounted for, crews had proceeded delicately with debris removal. Cranes and other heavy equipment are now being moved in to extract bigger pieces.
With the recovery operation over, officials gave reporters and TV cameras their first close look at the collapse site.
Much of the bridge decking still lies in broken pieces across the river, but all the vehicles have been removed except for a truck belonging to the construction crew that was working on the bridge when it collapsed.
A pedestrian bridge was reopened just a few hundred feet downstream from the collapse site, giving gawkers a better view. Still closed is a bridge that runs parallel to the interstate bridge; a city spokesman said a decision on when to reopen it would come in a few days.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Mark Rosenker, who joined Peters, said parts of the southern approach span and the concrete deck could be cleared away. Investigators want crews to move more slowly on the steel underpinnings of the bridge.
Construction cranes are being shipped into the collapse site on barges, They will be used to extract massive chunks of concrete from the bridge deck lying in the river and blocking the channel for boats. The chunks of bridge are being moved to two sites, one just upriver and the other just downriver, where they’ll be available to investigators.
The NTSB will have a crew on site into November, Rosenker said, but most of his staff has returned to Washington to do lab analysis using computer models and more closely inspect parts already collected.
Those include some of the beam-tying gusset plates, but Rosenker cautioned reporters against too much focus on those as a cause of the collapse.
“There’s more to it than the gusset plates,” he said.
The city, county and state became eligible for more federal assistance for the recovery from the Interstate 35W collapse when President Bush declared an emergency, the White House said. Officials said the federal relief money would be used to cover costs racked up by the search and rescue efforts, security at the bridge site, and overtime for law enforcers.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the declaration applies to certain rescue costs before Aug. 15 and comes with the expectation that there will be some local matching dollars. But he said he planned to ask Bush to loosen some of the restrictions and lengthen the aid window.
Bush, after a briefing from federal and state authorities on the bridge collapse, said the federal government will use its power to accelerate the recovery.
“Our job now is to cut through the bureaucracy, as best as possible, and get the people down here a new bridge,” Bush said from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Air Reserve Station. He was headed to a Republican fundraiser.
Bush commended those who have led recovery efforts, including military divers who have searched for bodies. He met with approximately 20 of the divers to thank them.
“The spirit that caused the recovery to be well coordinated is the very same spirit that’s going to cause this bridge to get rebuilt,” Bush promised.
Plans for rebuilding took another step forward when the Minneapolis City Council scheduled a public hearing that is needed before it can sign off on the construction. That meeting will be held Sept. 20, said Mayor R.T. Rybak.
“We will move as expeditiously as possible,” he said.
State officials have said they want the new bridge to be completed by 2008, and several contractors have said they think it can be done on time.
But lawmakers and others questioned the fast-track plans for the bridge, expressing doubts it will be a quick solution to the increased traffic that has clogged city streets since the Aug. 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W span.
State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, a Democrat, said quality problems and delays have plagued another bridge project near her home. “If we can’t build a bridge in three to five years, why do we think we can do it now in overdrive?” she said.
Bridge reconstruction project manager Jon Chiglo said five teams of contractors qualified to bid on the project didn’t think the fast timeline would be a problem, and he was confident the plan would work.
The new bridge is expected to carry 10 lanes of traffic and be built to accommodate a light rail transit line in the future. The federal government has authorized $250 million toward the project, but it won’t cover the enhanced features required for the potential rail line.
(Associated Press writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.)