Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek described for reporters just how difficult a job divers have in making their way in and around bridge wreckage in the search for the people missing following last Wednesday's bridge collapse.
"You know six inches to one foot in front of them in terms of clarity. They describe it as 'a fog' they can reach out about this far, not even a hand length, but about half that far and they're feeling as they go," Stanek said.
Stanek says since the search began, crews have identified seven vehicles underwater and accounted for people associated with all but one of those vehicles. He will not estimate how many more vehicles officials expect to encounter as their search continues. Stanek says officials hope the removal of debris will make the search more manageable.
"We have searched parts of the river away from the debris field itself, now it's time to start removing or dismantling the debris from the river," he said. "To do that is the expertise of the Navy, the expertise of the salvage companies that have been hired by the NTSB or MnDOT and working in conjunction with us, the FBI."
The Navy and FBI bring fresh manpower and highly-specialized equipment to the search. FBI Special Agent Paul McCabe says his agency will be using new sonar mapping technology and other equipment.
"We also have what's called a 'remote operated vehicle.' This is kind of a mini, unmanned submarine," according to McCabe. "It's powered by thrusters, attached to that are sonar, lights cameras and a bragging arm and that team has been deployed all over the world on specialty operations."
Beyond the underwater work, Stanek says crews are conducting a shore search for victims downstream from the wreckage for roughly six miles to the Ford dam.
No further briefings regarding the recovery effort are planned until early Tuesday afternoon, but officials say that could change pending developments with their search.
COMMUTERS TAKE IT IN STRIDE
Twin Cities motorists appear to be adapting to the loss of a section of I-35W. State officials say the Monday morning commute went better than expected, with drivers using alternate routes and new detours. Bus ridership also appeared to get a boost.
Before Wednesday's collapse, the 35W bridge carried up to 140,000 vehicles a day. Russ Christianson of Roseville traveled the bridge daily as a Metro Transit bus passenger. Christianson, who works for U.S. Bank in downtown Minneapolis, says he's surprised that his detoured bus ride took just a few minutes longer than usual.
"I take the bus from Rosedale Mall to downtown. There hasn't really been any change, maybe a little slower on Third once we get down here. But with construction on 35 going on prior to the bridge collapsing, we were kind of detoured anyway," he said.
LITTLE CONGESTION ENCOUNTERED
Drivers sounded similarly upbeat. Caryn Lantz of Burnsville, who works at the University of Minnesota and used to drive over the bridge twice a day, says she ran into little congestion taking secondary roads to work.
"My commute in this morning, it was like it could have been a Saturday morning," she said. "No traffic. I breezed through all the stop lights, no problems whatsoever. So, I'm expecting that to change fairly soon. But right now people are staying off the road, coming in later or perhaps telecommuting."
The experiences of these commuters largely match an official assessment from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Todd Kramascz, operation supervisor at the Regional Transportation Management Center, says morning traffic was lighter than expected under the circumstances. Kramascz says he thinks carpooling, public transportation and adjusted work hours made a difference.
"I think motorists themselves are doing a wonderful job of working together and seeking ways to mitigate this big closure," he said. "And it's been shown on the freeway maps and in the volume that we've seen."
A MAJOR TEST AHEAD
But Kramascz cautions a tougher test is coming next month when vacations are over and the University of Minnesota and other schools resume classes. He says preparations are underway to handle the expected increase in traffic volume.
Metro Transit officials described the morning rush hour as "very manageable." Spokesman Bob Gibbons says 16 extra buses were poised for service at several outlying commuter hubs, but only five were needed. He says an extra 25 buses would be ready downtown for the evening commute.
"While people may have taken earlier buses in this morning, had a cup of coffee before they sat down at their desk, when the work day is over, people will want to go home," Gibbons said. "So, the peak demand for transit service in the afternoon rush hour will be much more severe."
Traffic from 35W is being detoured to state highway 280. Traffic officials have lowered the speed limit along the route and closed several intersections. Major Al Smith of the Minnesota State Patrol says the detour is working well, but the route will be constantly evaluated.
"We're looking at the traffic flow. There are some issues, or some concerns always. We want to make sure we maximize the traffic flow through there so we don't have crashes, we don't have safety concerns," Smith says.
Throughout the metro area, Smith says the State Patrol saw no increase in the level of accidents and other calls for assistance during the morning rush hour.