Looking Deeper into Minnesota's Bridge Collapse Tragedy


Last week when the eight-lane, Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota collapsed, there were more questions than answers. While rescue workers and recovery teams tried to save as many lives as possible, there were many people missing after the tragedy and while others suffered severe injuries or were declared dead at the scene. Initially, no one could say what could have possibly happened to cause the bridge to fall into the Mississippi river.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and private investigators from a firm of forensic engineers that was hired by the state of Minnesota immediately went to work to try to determine the cause of the collapse. The forensic engineers are using special risk-analysis software to study each part of the bridge. They hope to be able to identify which part of the bridge caused the collapse.

It should not take them long to determine the case. In 1990, the federal government declared the bridge "structurally deficient". At that time, there were known problems with the bridge's safety.

The bridge was constructed of both concrete and steel. One of the problems lies in the extreme winter weather in Minneapolis. When water got into spaces between the supports and then froze and expanded, damage was done to the structure of the bridge. Concrete can handle cracking and wear, but steel can't. During the winter, road crews dumped corrosive chemicals on the bridge to melt the ice, and this further led to the deterioration of the bridge.

In the following years, inspectors found cracks and corrosion on the bridge, which was the busiest bridge in Minnesota. Inspections were then made every year instead of every two years. Repairs were made and the bridge was assumed safe.

The designation "structurally deficient" does not mean that a bridge is in imminent danger of failure. When the bridge was deemed to be structurally deficient, an emergency repair order was not issued; instead plans were made to replace the bridge in 2020.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty spoke at a press conference on the day following the collapse of the bridge. He stated that there are approximately 70,000 to 80,000 bridges in the United States that have been designated as being "structurally deficient". According to Pawlenty, there are an additional 80,000 bridges in the country that are considered "functionally obsolete", which means the bridge is not up to design standards. Neither classification necessarily means that a bridge is not safe for travel. Bridges that are deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete are not routinely closed for travel.

All of the necessary repairs to the nation's bridges are not made simply because it would cost too much money. Repairs to bridges and roadways are often put off because of the estimated $9 billion per year that it would cost to keep roads and bridges in good repair.

Three other bridges in Minnesota have the same structure as the bridge that collapsed. Governor Pawlenty has ordered immediate emergency inspections on all of the bridges in the state, starting with the three most similar to the one that collapsed.

Eight people are still missing from the bridge collapse and an estimated 50 cars are still under water. At least 6 people died in the collapse and dozens were treated for personal injuries they sustained in this Minnesota bridge collapse tragedy. An injury lawyer can help the victims explore options for legal action against the state.

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