Authorities identify four victims, other families wait for word

Holding on to hope
Ron Engebretsen of Shoreview, joined by his 18-year-old daughter, Jessica, talked on Thursday with reporters about Sherry Engebretsen, while holding out hope she was alive. But late in the day, they learned that she was killed in the bridge collapse.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The four confirmed were identified as Julia Blackhawk, 32, of Savage, Minnesota, who died of multiple blunt force injuries; Atemio Trinidad-Mena, 29, from Minneapolis, died of blunt force injuries and probable drownings; Sherry Lou Engebretsen, 60, from Shoreview; and Patrick Holmes, 36, of Mounds View, who was found dead at the scene Wednesday night.

His wife, Jennifer, heard the news a little after midnight. The autopsy shows Holmes died instantly from his injuries after falling onto the collapsed portion of 35W. He was on his way home from work.

Private investigation
A Minneapolis-based private investigator Tom George is working for a company that says they are missing 8 workers. George declined to name the company for which he is working.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The couple has two children -- a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter.

"He was a great husband, he was a great father. He loved spending time doing stuff with them. He coached our son in baseball and loved it and he's going to be missed," says Jennifer Holmes.

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The official death toll is expected to rise as more bodies are recovered. As many as 30 people are still reported missing.

Twin Cities resident Callie spent the day at the Metrodome Holiday Inn Red Cross Family Center. She was there to support her brother, whose girlfriend is still missing. Callie didn't want to give her brother's name to protect his privacy. But she grimly recounted the details of what she knew.

Her brother's girlfriend was on her way to meet friends when she called her boyfriend to say she was stuck in traffic on the I-35W bridge.

"Last thing they knew, they talked to her about maybe five or 10 minutes before the bridge collapsed," she said. "She was going over the bridge and she was stuck in traffic, and she was going to try to get to her destination as soon as possible. And that's the last we heard of her."

Media briefing
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek discussed rescue recovery efforts outside the Metrodome Holiday Inn.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

When he couldn't reach her, Callie's brother went to five area hospitals searching for news. There was no record of her there, so the family came to the Red Cross center early Thursday morning.

"It seemed like a logical place to be, at the center point, and they've been doing a lot to really help people. But it's just the not knowing that is taking so much time and wearing people down," she said.

By late Thursday, Callie's brother was still hoping for positive news.

Alan Brankline, the disaster mental health supervisor for the Red Cross based at the Mayo Clinic, says the center is designed to provide families with both information and comfort. He says having a place to gather is crucial at this stage, because most people are just starting to come to terms with the disaster.

"They don't even go to the place of, 'my loved one has drowned or maybe they've been injured traumatically, or how is it what happened?' They don't even want to go there emotionally or cognitively. They are just beginning to feel what this is, and they are trying to wrap their understanding about what this is," according to Brankline.

"It's just the not knowing that is taking so much time and wearing people down."

He says the freak nature of the I-35W bridge collapse also makes it more difficult for loved ones to comprehend what happened. He hears the same story again and again.

"Many of them say 'this is surrealistic,' many of them say 'this is like a nightmare,' 'this is like a dream.' 'I can't believe this is happening' and some of them are saying, 'I can understand if there was an accident, if there was crash if, there was a natural phenomena.' But a bridge collapse doesn't make sense to them," he said.

The family center is staffed with Red Cross mental health professionals. It's also getting help from certified volunteer counselors from Hennepin County, St. Cloud and Rochester.

Fifteen recovery divers and a dozen boats were searching for victims throughout most of the day. The search was slow-going because of strong currents and low visibility. By mid-afternoon, divers had located four more submerged cars.

Sherry Engebretsen's husband Ron, and 18-year old daughter Jessica, waited all day Thursday for word of Sherry's fate.

Jessica said it was 5:39 Wednesday evening when she last heard from her mother.

"She just said that she was coming home and we were going to have a family dinner, because my sister was leaving, and then it was just, good bye and I love you," Engebretsen said. "Then about a half hour later my sister and dad were in the kitchen watching the breaking news, and they told me not to worry, everything will be OK."

"We just kept calling and calling and calling and nothing," Engebretsen added. "She didn't pick up, and we couldn't get a signal, and we just -- we're like, she's stuck in traffic, that's all we thought."

As the night progressed,the Engebretson family's worries increased. They began calling hospitals, and praying. Jessica's dad Ron has been married to Sherry 32 years. The couple adopted both their daughters from Colombia.

He said every day Sherry commuted back and forth between Shoreview and downtown Minneapolis, crossing the I-35W bridge. But he said recently, because of construction and traffic, she'd switched to the 10th Ave. bridge. He doesn't know why, on this day, she decided to switch back.

He was holding out hope that she was lying unconscious in a hospital, identified only as Jane Doe. But that was not to be.

Lisa Jolstad of Mora was also there, looking for information about her husband Greg. He was doing construction work on the I-35W bridge in a machine called a skid steer loader, when the bridge collapsed out from under him.

"I just know he's in the water," said Jolstad. "I know his skidster went over and he's in the water, that's all I know - I just want it resolved, I want to know what's up with him."

Among the missing is Sadiya Sahal, 23, and her 2-year-old daughter, Hanah Mohamed. Sahal, who is five months pregnant, left home at 5:15 p.m. with the toddler in the back seat.

She called her family at 5:30 p.m. saying she was stuck in traffic on the bridge, according to Omar Jamal, a spokesman for the family. That was her last phone call.

"Her husband is destroyed. He's in shock," Jamal said.

Sahal, who is studying nursing, came to the United States from Somalia seven years ago and graduated from Washburn High School in Minneapolis.

Her family came to the Somali Justice Advocacy Center Thursday looking for help and not knowing where she or the child were or what might have happened to them, said Jamal, the center's director.

One man waiting for news is a private investigator. Tom George says he's been hired by a Minneapolis business --he won't say which one -- that's missing eight of its employees.

"They don't know if they're involved because their offices are right downtown, they don't know if these people are where," said George. "So all I could do was bring a list of those employees to the Red Cross here and ask them to compare them against their casualty list to see what's going on."

Other family and friends may have to wait a while longer for answers. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek told the media outside the Metrodome that his teams were working the area around the bridge as a crime scene, carefully gathering evidence.

"This recovery operation is slow and deliberate. And again, this is a recovery operation at this point," said Stanek. "The family members inside, their loved ones, it means a lot to them. And that's why I came by to offer my support, and assure them that we're doing everything we can to help them find some peace."

Unfortunately, peace may not come anytime soon. Divers searching the river are facing difficult conditions. They say the collapsed bridge has created dangerous currents, and the huge amount of debris is creating more obstacles.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)