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An Accident Waiting to Happen
One of Minnesota's top cops looks back at the tragic I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse

First appeared in Law Enforcement Technology
 

The Mighty Mississippi is an expanse of water immortalized in the works of many American writers, most notably Mark Twain. Known for its muddy waters, steamboats and commerce, the river occupies an unique place in American history, playing host to famous conflicts like the Battle of New Orleans, and providing a backdrop for the cities through which it flows.

The Mississippi lives up to its name, which is derived from the Ojibwe words for "great river" (misi-ziibi). Stretching from its beginning at Minnesota's Itasca State Park to the state of Louisiana, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, it's the second-largest river in the U.S., with only the Missouri River beating it for length. Over 2300 miles of river line the banks of cities as varied as Minneapolis, Dubuque, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans.

Although the Mississippi provides a backdrop for both the culture and way of life for those who live along its route, it has also provided major challenges for engineers. Huge bridges straddle the water, carrying thousands and thousands of motorists across them each day. One such bridge is the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge, 1900 feet of steel truss arch construction that served as a major thoroughfare in Minneapolis.

Spanning eight lanes, the bridge hosted more than 140,000 vehicles each day, traffic bolstered by its proximity to the University of Minnesota's campus and the Metrodome sports arena. Construction on the bridge began in 1964 and was completed in 1967. Although labeled "structurally deficient," following more than one inspection, the bridge was considered safe, but in need of work.

In August 2007, minor construction was underway on the bridge, mostly centered around guard rails, lighting and other non-structural components. As a result, traffic flow on the bridge was reduced from eight to four lanes. While crews labored, the bridge was burdened under the additional weight of nearly 600,000 pounds of construction equipment.

In the early evening of Aug. 1, 2007, hundreds of vehicles, including a school bus loaded with children, a semi-tractor trailer and dozens of commuters in their personal vehicles on their ways home from work, inched along the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge. At 6:05 p.m., their lives and the lives of many area first responders would change forever.

Setting the stage
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek knows Minneapolis. Born and raised in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Stanek served as a captain with the Minneapolis Police Dept, eventually overseeing the Criminal Investigations Division. In addition to five terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, in 2003 Stanek was appointed to a position as the state's Commissioner of Public Safety and Director of Homeland Security.

Commanding a department that includes in excess of 800 sworn and civilian employees, Stanek is noted for his thoughtful leadership and ability to see the big picture. On Aug. 1st, when the I-35W bridge collapsed, the sheriff had a chance to put his and his department's personnel and training to the test, as well as skills derived from National Incident Management System (NIMS) compliance.

Stanek was on his way to a meeting when he caught the radio-dispatched call alerting officers to the bridge's collapse during the height of evening rush hour. Ironically, his office is located only four blocks from the bridge.

"I didn't believe what I heard on the radio -- there was no emotion in the dispatcher's voice," Stanek said. He dialed in by phone to double-check the call -- the idea was almost inconceivable. Soon, the air buzzed with radio traffic. It would take the full resources of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, which has jurisdiction over the water, and 103 other agencies -- most notably the Minneapolis Police and Fire departments -- to complete the rescue and recovery of victims and their vehicles, as well as investigate the disaster.

Their NIMS training would be tested in every way imaginable during the ensuing days. Not only did the bridge collapse during the worst possible time frame, but other factors also exacerbated the situation, such as the fact that a Minnesota Twins game was scheduled for that night, its packed stadium only minutes away from the bridge.

The weather was hot and humid, leaving rescue workers with a real threat of dehydration. First responders found survivors clinging to the bridge, begging for help. A semi on the bridge caught on fire and burned, killing its driver. A school bus loaded with 60 children hung precipitously at the edge of a fragment of the bridge, its driver severely injured. Cell phones went down after about five minutes, leaving unofficial communication to chance.

The water level stood between 4 to 18 feet deep at the point of implosion, with water clarity of about 6 to 12 inches. The current, which generally runs about 2 knots, increased to a maximum of 7 knots. Debris (which continuously shifted) created manmade eddies and tides, rendering the current extremely dangerous.

In addition to the vehicles on the bridge at the time of the collapse, about 40 construction workers were present when the bridge fell. The university, with an enrollment and faculty of 65,000, stood at the base of the disaster. The second Stanek laid eyes on the rubble, he knew that his department's resources and readiness were about to get the work-out of their lives.

He was right.

The operation and the aftermath.
After removing survivors from the scene, responders commenced the task of locating and recovering deceased victims. It took three weeks and involved multiple agencies, importation of ultra-high-tech equipment and delicate handling for both the press and families of those killed.

Sheriff Stanek, who has spoken to many groups about the bridge's collapse, says that in retrospect there were 11 basic lessons learned from his agency's participation in and response to the I-35W disaster. By looking at what was learned, the disaster fits better into context. Here's what Stanek says is the take-away from this experience, which when the dust settled left 13 dead and over 100 injured, dozens critically.

Expect the unexpected.
"That’s the Golden Rule," Stanek says. "No one envisioned a bridge collapse in Minnesota on a hot August night." Nor did anyone foresee a group of terrorists would fly planes into the Pentagon, Twin Towers and a field in Pennsylvania. Anticipate the unthinkable.

It's all about working relationships.
"We know everybody on a first-name basis," he says of the emergency responder and law enforcement community in his area. Training with other agencies, working with them on cases and operations not only prepares a department for the worst case scenario, but it also fosters camaraderie, trust and friendship. Knowing one another and what to expect pays off when teamwork is critical.

First things first.
"I would categorize the first 30 minutes as absolutely critical," says Stanek. While the sheriff says it's fortunate that early decisions made on the scene were fortunate ones, he also admits it wasn't by design. His advice: don't waste time over-analyzing what you've got. Bring the equipment you're going to need and do it fast. Think about your communications from the beginning. Know what you have available to you. Stanek had only been sheriff for eight months when the bridge collapse took place, so his lessons took place under fire.

Organize around a purpose.
"It didn’t matter whether we were cops, National Guard or state police," Stanek says. "We were one team in one fight." Rescuers developed a common mission -- uniting victims with loved ones. Other considerations were also put into play, but that was the main vision everyone on the scene, not simply the sheriff's department, rallied around. It was unifying and it gave them not only a sense of direction, but kept them focused.

Set managed expectations.
"We held briefings and met with families," he says. "It was always about the victims." Victims' families can really feel the brunt of the media and often wax impatient when they perceive law enforcement and other agencies are not moving fast or thorough enough. Stanek says responders gave up vacations, worked over-time without complaint and endured hardships to keep the operation running. But the real focus was keeping the families in the loop -- and at the same time managing the media in such a way as to give them what they needed without compromising the families' and victims' privacy. They did that by giving reporters a tented staging area, access to portable toilets, water and even food.

You're the leader.
"There is no one else -- take responsibility for your own agency," says Stanek. You must understand where you fit into the whole and what your responsibilities are. Keep your people safe. In circumstances such as these you must often make ethical and moral decisions, so be prepared, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Stanek says his agency's divers found the going difficult because they weren't used to working under the types of conditions they found. When he had a few moments with Pres. George W. Bush, who flew in to talk to officials at the disaster, Stanek asked for Navy divers, who are trained to work under similar circumstances. "I asked at 10:30 and by 2 p.m. I'd already received phone calls from the secretaries of the Navy and Transportation. By 4 a.m. the next day, U.S. Navy divers were in the water," he says.

Surround yourself with great people.
Says Stanek, "I had the right people in the right place at the right time." He credits the experienced officers already in the agency as well as those he brought with him for doing a professional job under very challenging circumstances. Knowing the talent and capabilities of his personnel made a difficult time if not easier, at least more professional.

Develop and communicate strong beliefs.
"It was important for us to maintain dignity for the people who lost their lives and their families," says Stanek. Whenever a body was recovered, workers paused for a moment of silence. All other activity stopped and personnel shielded the scene from prying eyes and the media with tarps and other devices. They wanted to make certain the event was not turned into a photo opportunity.

Stand up for your mission.
"A lot of people (involved in a disaster) have competing interests," Stanek acknowledges. He recommends that law enforcement executives not allow them to deflect focus away from the mission, whether it's a safe evacuation, ongoing search and rescue or containment of a scene.

The buck stops here.
"There will be litigation, so prepare for it," says the sheriff. Stanek drew on his background in public safety and homeland security to document literally everything that took place on the scene. Agency photographers recorded the scene, officers took notes, videotape was made, reports gathered, even email was copied. Stanek had the material brought together and put into "literally dozens" of three-ring binders, waiting for requests from attorneys, investigators, victims' families, the media and other interested parties.

11. Watch what you say.
Stanek says one public official went on the air and told reporters that 68 people had died. This was when the body count stood at 6 to 8. Never forget that some public officials consider a disaster as the perfect moment for a little public relations. Don't fall into that trap.

In the end
When the last body was recovered, the cars removed from the water and the crime scene tape taken down, Stanek was left to reflect on the operation. He says he saw real value in the NIMS training his officers underwent and believes the take-away is that it really works.

Dozens of agencies offered their services -- small town police departments, federal agents, fire departments, emergency rescue workers and more -- and they were all put to work. Says Stanek, "There were federal agencies trying to figure out what their roles were, but at the end of the day they are all cops with guns."

And, for the most part, everyone did what was asked of them without complaint, without regard to the importance of the task. If perimeter control was needed, that's what they did. There were no stars among the emergency personnel who worked the scene., but there was a common goal -- to do the right thing by the victims, and that, ultimately, is what they did.

Sidebar:

View From the Water
Hennepin County Sheriff's chief diver talks about the challenges of underwater disaster recovery

In 1997, Inspector Jeff Storms who heads the Hennepin County Sheriff's Enforcement Services Bureau, started diving with the underwater recovery team. Although he supervises the unit and doesn't actively dive as much as before, Storms says he and his team learned a lot about themselves, their profession and the community when the I-35W bridge collapsed.

The team, which like the rest of the department has extensive NIMS training, had several goals in addition to their recovery duties. Paramount among them -- to do everything possible to protect the rescuers. Their secondary goal echoes Sheriff Stanek's departmental objectives.

"(To preserve) the dignity of those underneath the bridge," Storms says. "For the last 11 years, I have dealt with 75-100 families in connection with drownings, and the one thing we do is make sure family members know what is happening."

Storm's team is accustomed to dealing with distraught families and recovering remains, but when team members arrived on the scene of the bridge collapse, they knew that not only would be it an extended operation, but it would provide a challenge unlike any they'd ever before encountered.

"It was surreal," Storms admits when looking back on his initial reaction to the first call. Approaching the scene by watercraft, Storms said he came in from down river.

"Before I even got there I could smell the gasoline in the water," he says. He could also smell the smoke from fires, but Storms says the NIMS training kicked in quickly.

"Everybody was responding to the call for assistance, everybody understood the unified command (concept)," he says. "It was very positive and…followed, right down to the letter."

Although the situation was difficult, there were some breaks. Because there had been something of a drought that summer, the current was not as strong as it had been a few months earlier. The negative was that because the debris was so massive and volatile, it shifted constantly, posing a danger to the rescue divers.

"The biggest thing we work toward was (weighing) risk versus benefit," Storms explains. "Prior to putting someone in extreme risk, we have to understand the benefit. An hour after the event we understood that anyone underwater was deceased. There was one car south of 35W, but we didn't have a diver go in because of gas and oil on the water. There was no benefit."

Area dive teams (Hennepin County alone hosts three rivers and 104 named lakes) converged on the scene and did some preliminary rescue work, but when it became obvious that the mission had shifted from rescue to recovery, the agency requested assistance from Navy SEALS, who are trained to work in murky water in highly hazardous conditions.

Eventually, all of the missing were recovered, with no injuries sustained by the divers, despite the danger. Storms credits the spirit of cooperation between agencies, a clear sense of mission and putting safety first with making the effort run smoothly. Looking back, he says that divers from different area agencies have always had each other's backs and, he believes, that makes all the difference.

"The biggest part is that it all comes down relationships you build in law enforcement prior to the event," Storms says. "We never forecast a bridge collapse within our county, but we helped out numerous agencies. When (the collapse happened) we all became one large law enforcement community."

 

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