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In the early morning, nearly 12 hours after an eight-lane Minneapolis bridge packed with rush-hour traffic collapsed into the Mississippi River, Sam Crabtree walked to the surreal scene from his home a half-mile away. The sky was clear and the water looked calm. "It's a beautiful summer morning here," he told WORLD a few hours later from his office at nearby Bethlehem Baptist Church. "But the smell of death is in the air."
Less than 12 hours after Interstate 35W crumpled into giant sections and plunged dozens of cars into the waters below, officials had confirmed four deaths. They warned the toll would rise. Early reports said at least 79 were injured-six critically-and another 20 were missing.
Rescue workers grimly reported they would recover more bodies: During first-response rescue operations, divers glimpsed dead victims in submerged cars they couldn't recover before darkness fell.
Pulling out victims and vehicles quickly turned into a harrowing task itself. Tons of submerged concrete, jagged metal, crushed cars, and treacherous currents made diving dangerous and slow. Officials said the recovery efforts would take at least three days.
The city's recovery will take longer. Interstate 35W was a major traffic artery that carried some 140,000 cars in and out of Minneapolis every weekday. The 40-year-old bridge stood about 64 feet above the river and stretched some 1,900 feet across. "We don't have a spare 35W," said Jim Kranig, a local transportation official.
But as local officials braced for traffic snarls, they also braced for something else: local outrage. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that a 2005 study found signs of "fatigue cracking" in the bridge supports, and stated the bridge was "structurally deficient." State officials promised "a thorough investigation."
Meanwhile, survivors of the mammoth collapse recounted incredible stories of escape: Peter Siddons was headed north on the bridge when he heard "crunching." "It kept collapsing down, down, down until it got to me," he said. Siddons crawled out his car, climbed up a steep section of the bridge, and jumped to land.
A school bus carrying some 60 children fell from the bridge, missed the water, and landed on all four tires near the parkway. No one in it was seriously injured.
Marcelo Cruz steered into a concrete railing to keep his van from plunging into the river. Onlookers shouted for Cruz to get out. Cruz told them he couldn't: He is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Onlookers rescued Cruz and carried him in his wheelchair to the riverbank.
Today, Sam Crabtree, executive pastor of Bethlehem Baptist, said the disaster scene was a sobering reminder of man's frailty: "Here's this huge bridge that used to be a monument to man's strength, and now it's lying there like a twisted, warped piece of ribbon."
Jon Grano, lead pastor of operations, said many church staffers cross the bridge everyday. The highway is visible from the Bethlehem's parking lot. Grano said he knew of no one from the church directly involved in the collapse, but two Bethlehem members on their way to a Wednesday night Bible study crossed the bridge minutes before it buckled.
John Piper, Bethlehem Baptist's lead pastor, crossed 35W with his family on the way to vacation the afternoon before the bridge collapsed. From a cabin in northern Minnesota, Piper told WORLD that his pastoral response would emphasize God's sovereignty and goodness.
He also will remind his congregation that death is an unavoidable reality that happens everyday and behind the closed doors of hospitals and nursing homes. "We Americans are very good at keeping death out of our minds," he said. "Things like this shake us into the reality that we live with every day, if we just had eyes to see."