Rescuers have given up hope of finding any more survivors after an eight-lane bridge spanning the Mississippi River collapsed during rush-hour traffic, although dozens more vehicles could be seen in the murky water, a rescue official said yesterday.
"At this point it is a recovery effort," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, speaking early yesterday after rescue attempts were abandoned for the night because of the dangers of the operation.
"It's dark, it's not safe with the currents in the water and the concrete," he said.
About 50 cars were still in the water, officials said.
The collapse did not appear to be terrorism-related. The bridge linked the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack also said there were unlikely to be any survivors.
"We think there are several more vehicles in the river we can't see yet," Clack said.
About 20 families had gathered at an information center, looking for information on loved ones apparently missing.
"I've never wanted to see my brother so much in my life," said Kristi Foster, who went to the center looking for Kirk.
She hadn't had contact with her brother or his girlfriend since the previous night, and his cellphone was switched off.
Clack said 60 people were taken to area hospitals for treatment and that the death toll could rise.
Police Lieutenant Amelia Huffman said: "This morning, the medical examiner's office only has four sets of remains."
Initial reports of seven people killed were based on the best estimates authorities had on Wednesday night, she said.
The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, which is a major Minneapolis artery, was being repaired and two lanes in each direction were closed when the bridge buckled on Wednesday evening, breaking into huge sections and collapsing into the river, pitching dozens of cars 18m into the water and killing at least seven.
Search lights on the banks illuminated a horrific scene of twisted wreckage, thick concrete slabs, twisted steel and crushed cars tossed about haphazardly. A line of ambulances idled along the adjacent bridge.
"Obviously, this is a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota," Governor Tim Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty said the 40-year-old bridge was inspected by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2005 and last year and that no immediate structural problems were noted.
"There were some minor things that needed attention," he said.
Federal officials and Minnesota lawmakers were expected to travel to the Twin Cities yesterday to begin investigating the collapse.
The National Transportation Safety Board will be sending a team of investigators, spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said.
Road crews were working on the bridge's joints, guardrails and lights this week.
A school bus had just crossed the midsection of the bridge before it collapsed. The bus did not go into the water, and broadcast reports indicated the children on the bus exited out the back door.
All 60 kids got off the bus safely, but about 10 of the children were injured, officials said.