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Bush vows to help rebuild collapsed bridge

At site of the tragedy in Minnesota, he pledges to cut red tape over funding.

Published August 5, 2007


MINNEAPOLIS - President Bush pledged Saturday to cut red tape that could delay rebuilding a highway bridge that once arched over the Mississippi River but now lies crumbled in muddy water concealing some victims.

Bush, still dogged by his administration's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, toured the site of Wednesday's collapse, which sent dozens of cars sliding into the river from the Minneapolis span. At least five people died and about 100 others were injured. At least eight were confirmed missing Saturday, authorities said.

"Our message to the Twin Cities is, we want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible, that we understand this is a main artery of life here - that people count on this bridge and this highway system to get to work," Bush said as he stood next to the buckled spans, still littered with abandoned vehicles.

"There's a lot of paperwork involved with government," he said. "One of our jobs is to work with the governor and the mayor and the senators and the members of the Congress to cut through that paperwork."

Divers spent a third fruitless day searching for victims of the bridge collapse, finding no bodies inside a crushed car pulled earlier Saturday from the murky Mississippi River waters.

Police cautioned that the number of missing could still rise, saying it's possible some victims have not been reported missing.

The federal government is providing a $5-million grant to help remove tons of debris and reroute traffic. Congress has approved $250-million in funds to help repair the bridge and will have to appropriate the money later.

A memorial service with songs and prayers for the victims was set for 7 p.m. today. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak encouraged Minnesotans to attend and honor the families and first responders.

Minnesota's legislative leaders began putting lawmakers on standby for a post-Labor Day special session. Pawlenty, in a political concession, announced he is willing to reverse his long-standing opposition to a state gas tax increase.

Pawlenty said that he hopes lawmakers will agree to his ideas for funding road and bridge repairs but that details had not yet been worked out. The state's gas tax has stood at 20 cents per gallon since 1988.

In the investigation of the collapse, a detailed examination of the wreckage around the southern end of the bridge led investigators to conclude "that is probably not where the event began," said Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The southern end shifted 81 feet during the collapse.

The bridge was deemed "structurally deficient" by the federal government as far back as 1990, and inspections over the years had raised alarm, with findings of rust-eaten steel beams, missing bolts and cracks in the welding that held parts together.

A consulting company noted that one possible fix - steel plating of fractures - carried a "relatively high cost," according to a January report. Transportation officials deny that cost pressures swayed their decisions.

After the collapse, federal officials ordered states to immediately inspect bridges of similar designs. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said Saturday that those inspections hadn't found any immediate problems.

Fast Facts:

Bridge victim

Paul Eickstadt, 51, is among the five victims of the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis on Wednesday. Eickstadt, of Mounds View, was trapped in his tractor-trailer as it burst into flames, dangling between broken concrete slabs. He was delivering fresh bread products from Roseville to the Sara Lee bakery depot in Mason City, Iowa. He had worked for Sara Lee since 1993, and the company described him as "a reliable employee who always got the job done."

[Last modified August 5, 2007, 01:40:48]

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