Judge denies law firm access to bridge collapse data

Bohemian Flats
A site along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, called the Bohemian Flats, is where pieces of the collapsed I-35W bridge are being collected.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickal

(AP) - Details of the investigation into the Interstate 35W bridge collapse can be kept private until the federal government decides to make them public, a Minnesota judge ruled Thursday.

Hennepin County District Judge Herbert Lefler rejected a law firm's attempt to pry loose investigative data and gain access to a site where wreckage from the downed bridge is being stored. Lefler wrote that federal regulations covering National Transportation Safety Board investigations trump state laws dealing with access to government records.

The federal rules, Lefler added, allow the NTSB to stay focused on its investigation of the accident's cause "in the hopes of avoiding a similar incident in the future."

"Everyone wants answers. The public wants answers. The press wants answers. We want answers. Certainly it slows down the search for the truth here as to what happened."

The NTSB has sole authority to release information from active investigations it is involved in.

The NTSB has said it could take at least a year to reveal a probable cause of the collapse.

The law firm -- Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben -- represents victims of the Aug. 1 collapse, which killed 13 people and injured more than 100. They said they needed the information for use in possible lawsuits stemming from the incident.

Specifically, the firm hoped to force the Minnesota Department of Transportation to release information collected by a consultant it hired to help find a cause.

MnDOT is paying Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. $2 million to conduct a parallel investigation and be an expert witness for the state in any lawsuits.

Lefler agreed with state attorneys that Wiss Janney "is an agent of the state and considered by the NTSB to be a participant in the investigation of the bridge collapse. As such, all data by WJE for the investigation is non-public."

Jim Schwebel said an appeal is certain.

"Everyone wants answers. The public wants answers. The press wants answers. We want answers," he said. "Certainly it slows down the search for the truth here as to what happened, and there is no necessity or justification for this information to be withheld at this time."

In a prepared statement, the Transportation Department said the order "confirms MnDOT's understanding and application of federal law as it relates to the release of data associated with the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the I-35W bridge collapse."

Bent beams and other key bridge components are being kept at Bohemian Flats, an area along the Mississippi River near the site of the collapse, and some of them will be shipped later to NTSB headquarters for further analysis.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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