Divers to get more help in search for missing motorists

A better look
Thousands of spectators flocked to the Stone Arch Bridge on Sunday after officials reopened it. It has been closed after the I-35 bridge collapsed nearby.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

It was a quiet but businesslike day of work Sunday for the divers and their support teams operating out of a command post on the banks of the Mississippi River. Late in the afternoon trucks pulled in from a number of area rescue units, including Chanhassen, Chaska and Carver County.

The flow of people in and out of the work area is a reminder of the constant need for new workers to relieve those who've put in long hours.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek says the search area is about six miles long, bank to bank from just above the collapsed bridge downstream to the Ford Dam.

"Residents in the area who are concerned have been very gracious and good about respecting privacy," Stanek said. "We remind them that at least five people died during the bridge collapse and it is essentially... a gravesite."

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The sheriff says more help is on the way. The divers work from a staging area near the University of Minnesota. A new team of underwater searchers from the FBI are expected to arrive there Monday. The unit is known as the "underwater search and evidence recovery team".

"The FBI's dive team is a forensic dive team," says Stanek. "We have a number of missing individuals, we need to locate them. If we locate them, when we locate them, we have to process where they're found. And so they're going to aid us in that effort."

Stanek says he's also requested help from the Navy. They have a unit called the "mobile diving and salvage team." The sheriff says he's waiting for an answer from the Defense Department on whether the unit will be sent. If they come, the Navy divers will help supervise the removal of debris from the site.

The dive teams currently on scene are also getting help from several technological devices. They're using side-scan sonar and underwater cameras to aid the search. Stanek says they're rechecking some areas with sonar that were previously scanned. Any suspicious objects detected will be marked for closer inspection by divers. Stanek says the cameras give a detail look at what often are dangerous portions of the collapse scene.

"The cameras provide a little more opportunity using that technology to be able to get in under some of the debris that we couldn't see otherwise," says Stanek. "The camera's a lot safer than using a diver at this point and if we find something we'll send a diver in if it's safe to check it out."

Stanek says as many as 150 people from various county sheriff departments are working each day on the search. He says the efforts are now moving into what he calls phase two. So far divers have only taken out small pieces of debris -- mostly things that were in the way of something they were interested in.

Stanek says in phase two, larger pieces of the bridge will be removed. However the sheriff says phase two does not mean a shift in commitment. He says the principal focus of the divers remains the search for victims.