TEXT ON SCREEN: August 1, 2007
NARRATION: It was a commuters worst nightmare. A major interstate bridge collapsed during rush hour
ARCHIVAL (KSTP, 8-1-07): ANCHOR: One of the main iconic bridges in the Twin Cities has collapsed.
ARCHIVAL (KSTP, 8-1-07): HELICOPTER PILOT: The entire bridge is in the water, the 35W bridge is in the water.
NARRATION: leaving dozens of cars and trucks trapped in the wreckage
ARCHIVAL (KSTP, 8-1-07): REPORTER: The flames are very close to that school bus, there are cars on fire right now.
ARCHIVAL (WCCO RADIO, 8-1-07): JOHN WANNAMAKER: Children were running away from this, just horrified.
NARRATION: and sending others plunging into the Mississippi River.
ARCHIVAL (WCCO RADIO, 8-1-07): JOHN WANNAMAKER: This is really awful.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 8-1-07): REPORTER: Its the most awful thing Ive ever seen.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 8-1-07): LYNN LUBAN (WITNESS): I just couldnt believe anything like that could ever happen.
NARRATION: As investigators combed through the rubble, the collapse sounded an alarm.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 8-2-07): BRIAN WILLIAMS: Are the bridges we drive over every day really safe?
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 7-31-08): SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR: A bridge in America just shouldnt fall down.
NARRATION: The collapse led to promises to fix decaying bridges across the country. But how much progress has been made?
WHEN A BRIDGE FALLS
NARRATION: It was a hot Wednesday evening in Minneapolis, the height of rush hour. Construction crews were resurfacing the forty-year-old I-35W bridge when, at 6:05pm, it began to shake.
LINDSAY WALZ (COLLAPSE SURVIVOR): I heard a beam snap. I heard a clank, just a loud clank, and I was falling.
GARRETT EBLING (COLLAPSE SURVIVOR): I remember just grabbing the steering wheel and thinking Ride it out, ride it out, ride it out. Not knowing how far I was going to fall.
NARRATION: It was an ten-story drop. Garrett Eblings car fell head-on into concrete. Lindsay Walz found herself underwater, out of air, trapped inside her car.
LINDSAY WALZ: I knew that there would be no one else there to, you know, save me. I started to think about my family and hope that they would know that I was thinking about them.
ARCHIVAL (911 CALL, 8-1-07): CALLER: Theres hundreds of cars. Down in the river. Bring everything youve got.
ARCHIVAL (911 CALL 8-1-07): CALLER: I think there could be people trapped in cars is what Im really worried about.
NARRATION: Walz somehow made it to the surface where she waited for help.
LINDSAY WALZ: I remember just saying over and over again, I dont know how I got out of my car. I dont know how I got out of my car. And it was just like on repeat.
GARRETT EBLING: They came up to my car. They found me. The water was up to my shoulder level. Um, mouth covered in blood. It was unlikely that I was going to make it through the, through that night.
NARRATION: At the hospital, doctors said they had never seen anything like Ebling.
GARRETT EBLING: I broke both my ankles, I broke my left arm, severed the colon, ruptured diaphragm, collapsed lung, broke my jaw in three places My mom said the only way that she could recognize me was by my feet.
NARRATION: One hundred and ninety people were on the bridge when it collapsed. By nightfall, thirteen were dead.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, AC360, 8-1-07): DR. JOSEPH CLINTON: It looks like the scene at the bridge, from the information we have, is largely a recovery operation at this time.
NARRATION: With bodies still in the water, questions were being raised as to who was responsible.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, AC360, 8-1-07): TIM PAWLENTY: Obviously, this is a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota.
NARRATION: The media began to scrutinize the bridge, and how well Minnesotas transportation department maintained it.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, AC360, 8-2-07): ANDERSON COOPER: Its obvious there were troubling safety questions about this bridge years before the collapse.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 8-2-07): CHRIS BURY: Annual inspections had noted assorted cracks, corrosion and fatigue.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, AC360, 8-2-07): RANDI KAYE: So why was the state of Minnesota all the way up to the governors office telling us this bridge was safe?
NARRATION: Under criticism, Governor Tim Pawlenty defended his record.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 8-2-07): GOVERNOR TIM PAWLENTY: There were problems with the bridge, but not a recommendation to immediately close it Again, just because it falls in this category doesnt necessarily mean that its unsafe We have to let the investigation and review process work.
NARRATION: Investigators from the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, arrived within 24 hours to figure out what went wrong.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 8-5-07): LEE COWAN: Officials are looking at everything, from the weight of construction equipment on the bridge to traffic patterns, vibrations, the weather, even the kind of solvent used to melt the ice and snow in the winter.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 8-2-07): MARK ROSENKER (NTSB CHAIRMAN): Anything is possible. And we will not rule anything out. We will not rule anything out.
NARRATION: Investigators soon began to rule something in. Nearly 300 tons of construction materials had been placed on the bridge. Right over a flaw in the bridges design.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 1-15-08): BRIAN WILLIAMS: The NTSB today said a design mistake involving 16 separate plates from the center span was what they called the critical factor in that deadly accident.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 1-15-08): KATIE COURIC: The steel connectors known as gusset plates were simply too thin.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 1-15-08):BEN TRACY: A half inch thick when they should have been twice that. Instead of being the strongest parts of the bridge, they were some of the weakest.
NARRATION: The NTSBs conclusion meant that a mistake made 40 years earlier had brought the bridge down. And the flaw went undetected because it wasnt standard practice for inspectors to later look for such design errors.
TOM JOHNSON (AUTHOR OF REPORT ON BRIDGE COLLAPSE FOR THE MINNESOTA LEGISLATURE): When youve got a gusset plate that should have been an inch thick and its only a half, thats going to be a problem.
NARRATION: Tom Johnson says the accident, while determined to have been caused to the design flaw, also brought attention to a bridge that inspectors had rated in poor condition for 17 consecutive years.
TOM JOHNSON: You dont get rated in poor condition for lack of paint. Theres serious problems with it.
NARRATION: Among other things, past inspections showed a corroded roller bearing wasnt moving the way it was supposed to. The NTSB said it wasnt a factor in the collapse, but an engineer hired by survivors suing two bridge contractors says it was a problem that should have been fixed.
ELISABETH MALSCH (STRUCTURAL ENGINEER, THORNTON TOMASETTI): When steel heats up, it wants to expand. So if the roller bearings are seized and the bridge cant expand, then the loads get worse and worse until finally its to the point where its just ready to pop.
NARRATION: Inspectors also noted these gusset plates had bowed from stress, but missed the significance.
ELISABETH MALSCH: There were opportunities to fix the roller bearings. There were opportunities to find the design error with the gusset plates and to retrofit them. Those opportunities were missed.
NARRATION: Guidelines have since been issued to better detect problems with gusset plates and bridge design. But an investigation by the Minnesota legislature sought to find out why the bridge hadnt been reinforced given its history.
ARCHIVAL (HEARING OF MINNESOTA LEGISLATURE JOINT COMMITTEE TO INVESTIGATE THE BRIDGE COLLAPSE, 5-28-08): REPRESENTATIVE NEIL PETERSON: Lack of management and lack of identifying of red flags has darn near brought this department down.
NARRATION: The legislature found that at the time of the collapse, the states transportation department was underfunded and overworked, and had to prioritize which bridges to address first.
TOM JOHNSON: We came away from our investigation that these are professionals trying to do their job, but they had some very severe restrictions about, you know, what they could do, largely because of lack of money.
NARRATION: State officials refer to bridges like the 35W as budget busters.
TOM JOHNSON: Theres a tension between spending money for new roads or new interchanges or putting money into the repair of a bridge. That bridge was standing yesterday, its standing today, why wont it be standing tomorrow? The lesson is that youve got to maintain bridges.
NARRATION: In February 2008, Minnesota raised its gas tax for the first time in 20 years and embarked on an ambitious program to renovate bridges across the state, a $2.1 billion effort spread over a decade. The new 35W bridge is state-of-the-art, built to last 100 years. While many states have stepped up bridge inspections and repairs, helped by the federal stimulus, engineers say it is still not enough, and in some parts of the country, they are doing little more than triage.
BARRY LEPATNER (CONSTRUCTION ATTORNEY, AUTHOR, TOO BIG TO FALL): They all know that the money is not there. So, all they can do is the best they can do and hope that these failures dont happen in their jurisdictions.
NARRATION: The nations 607,000 bridges continue to age and many carry traffic beyond which they were designed. One in four are rated deficient and one in thirty were built like the one in Minneapolis fracture critical where if one critical piece were to fail, the entire bridge could fail.
Barry LePatner spent years mapping the bridges in both categories 8,000 of them which he says are most at risk of collapse.
BARRY LEPATNER: It troubles me that the federal government doesnt see this issue the same as they see a crack in an engine on an airplane. Its the same thing to me.
NARRATION: Transportation officials say bridges that fall in both categories undergo rigorous inspections, and are closed if they are unsafe. But they continue to make headlines. This bridge in Indiana could have collapsed in 2011, had an enormous crack not been discovered in time. This bridge north of Seattle, did, in 2013 after being hit by a truck.
ARCHIVAL (ABC7, 5-23-13): NEWS REPORT: Youre looking at live pictures where a bridge on I-5 collapsed, taking several cars with it.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 5-24-13): JEFF GLOR: The bridge was considered fracture critical, meaning if one major part fails, the rest does too. There is no back up.
BARRY LEPATNER: There is no safety net; theyre all vulnerable. And we should be immediately finding the funds to fix those bridges and give them greater structural integrity because they dont have any right now.