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Cars. construction vehicles, and heavy equipment.  Photo by Noah Kunin.

Numerous vehicles were on or beneath the 35W Bridge at the time of it's collapse on August 1, 2007.  Among these were commercial trucks and construction equipment, a school bus, several rail cars, and a large number of personal autombiles.  The presence of these vehicles represented not only a tangible loss to their owners, but also potential hazards to the rescue effort and environment.  Given the time of the collapse during a weeknight rush hour and the total destruction of the bridge, a surprisingly small number of vehicles actually fell in to the river or were crushed such that hazardous materials release would be a concern.  Environmental monitoring of the air and water for several weeks following the collapse indicated that no environmentally significant pollution was generated.  Vehicles that did end up in the water exacerbated the challenges to rescue/recovery divers caused by bridge debris and adverse weather conditions.



Oil slick on the Mississippi after the collapse. Photo by Flickr user mattdesmond.

A sheen of oil on the river was reported by several sources and visible in post-collapse photography.  Petroleum products are of high environmental concern, and the nature of the event generated an immediate response for identification of the problem and potential safety or remediation measures.  However, this visible product release was in fact a minute quantity spread extremely thin across the surface of the water, and largely evaporated or was dispersed by the natural river flow within a matter of hours. [1]


The Minneapolis Star & Tribune's "13 Seconds in August" website provides a detailed, interactive visual record of the positions and condition of many of the individual vehicles involved in the collapse, as well as written and video accounts of the victims and survivors.


The Schoolbus


An immediate focus of media coverage at the time of the collapse was a full-size yellow schoolbus perched precariously on the edge of a broken segment of the bridge deck after falling 65 feet.  Onboard were 50 or 52 children (reports vary), 8 staffers, and their driver returning from a youth group outing at a suburban water park.  Only minor injuries (cuts, bruises) were reported as a result of the fall. [2][3]




According to Mn/DOT nearly one hundred vehicles had been removed from the collapse site as of August 16, 2007.  At least 25 of these vehicles were removed from the river itself.  These numbers include some commercial and construction vehicles, although the significant majority were private cars.[4]


Rail Cars


Rail cars crushed & spilling plastics. Photo by Flickr user erlin1.

Two rail cars were crushed as they sat on the tracks running beneath the bridge on the north bank.  These raised immediate fears of a hazardous chemical spill, as a white substance could be seen to spill onto the ground from the breached hull of one of the cars.  In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, Fire Department and MPCA officials attempted to ascertain the nature of the spill, while the car's owners rushed to the scene to inform responders of the contents.  However, tight security was in place very shortly after the collapse, and the owners were prevented from accessing the site or reaching the command post for hours.  Eventually, the spill was identified to the responders as harmless HDPE and PVC plastic pellets and powder - materials used for common products such as milk and detergent bottles and water pipes.[1]


One of the other nearby damaged rail cars, a tanker, turned out to be another false alarm.  Damaged over a decade ago, the car had been partially repaired for use as a training tool for hazmat and fire crews.  The tanker itself was not actually damaged further as a result of the collapse.[1]


Trucks & Heavy Equipment


As would be expected during rush hour on one of the major thoroughfares in the state, traffic included both commuter and commercial vehicles.  Among the worst of all the damaged vehicles were a UPS semi truck and another from Tastee Bakery.  Heavy equipment was also standing on the bridge in relation to the repair activity in progress at the time.  This included at least two pickup trucks, a grappler crane truck, a tanker trailer containing concrete dry mix material, a flatbed trailer, a mixing truck, and numerous concrete buggies.[5]  None of the construction equipment contained any materials of environmental concerns, and the presence of workers and documentation on site allowed that information to be disseminated immediately.[1]


The Tasty Bakery truck was one of the tragic stories of the collapse.  It was featured prominently in the video and photo reports coming from the scene that evening, as it caught fire and burned intensely after crashing immediately adjacent to the school bus.  Bound for Mason City, Iowa with a load of bakery goods, the truck fell hard in to one of the gaps between intact sections of the bridge deck, and it was reported that the driver did not survive the impact.[5]


The UPS truck, only a short distance behind the Tasty truck in the southbound lanes, was pitched off the bridge and crashed in to the trees west of the collapsed bridge.  Although the driver reported his diesel fuel was spilling in to the truck's cabin as he attempted to escape, the wreck did not catch fire.  Having sustained serious injuries in the crash and leaping from the top of his truck, the driver was helped to safety by another collapse survivor who had been slightly ahead of him on the road.[5]


See Also:


Charities and Victim Compensation Funds




1. Levy, Steve. “Sampling & Monitoring in Emergencies & Disasters.” MPCA Air, Water, & Waste Environmental Conference. Bloomington, MN. Feb. 27, 2008.

2. School bus survival described as 'Miracle'Associate Press. Aug. 2, 2007.

3. Wiggins, Leslie.  Kids on school bus survive Mississippi River bridge collapseCNN.com.  Aug. 2, 2007.

4. Interstate 35W Bridge Collapse. Minnesota Department of Transportation. Retrieved Mar. 9, 2008

5. Prod. Rhonda Prast. 13 Seconds in August. Minneapolis Star & Tribune. Dec. 5, 2007

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