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By Patrick Condon, Published August 16 2007

Bridge near collapse closes

MINNEAPOLIS – The public got its best view in weeks of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse on Wednesday when the city briefly opened a nearby pedestrian bridge, but the span was soon closed after recovery workers called the move disrespectful to families of those still missing.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said he reversed his decision to open the bridge because the recovery effort was picking up steam after a few days in which Navy divers were slowed by rapid currents brought on by stormy weather.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek had opposed opening the pedestrian bridge. Victims’ families “do not want to see another picture of a body bag in a newspaper,” said Kathryn Janicek, the sheriff’s spokeswoman.

City spokesman Matt Laible said the mayor had consulted with leaders of the recovery, as well as victims’ family members, before making his decision to open the bridge. He felt it important to give the public a better view of the remnants of the bridge, which collapsed two weeks ago, killing at least nine people. Four are still known to be missing.

The site previously had been best viewed from an upstream pedestrian bridge that’s significantly farther away.

The city has attempted to “strike a balance between finding ways to give the broader community a chance to pay respects and better understand what happened, while protecting the privacy and dignity of those lost and yet to be found,” said Rybak’s spokesman, Jeremy Hanson.

The bridge will remain closed until the recovery of bodies is complete, Hanson said.

Divers were back in the Mississippi River on Wednesday. Randy Mitchell, a spokesman for the operation, said divers were helping with debris removal and looking for the best ways to enter and search sunken vehicles around the collapse.

From the briefly opened bridge, which connects parts of the University of Minnesota campus divided by the river, a piece of heavy equipment with a large set of jaws could be seen picking up pieces of rebar, steel beams and other debris and depositing them onto a barge.

By mid-afternoon, a growing crowd was gathering to see the new view.

“It’s a much better view. It’s unbelievable,” said Debbie Rouvik of Cottage Grove, who brought her 8-year-old son Garrett.

“This is just overwhelming ... I can’t believe metal can fold like this,” she said.

Separately, a federal judge Wednesday denied a law firm’s request for access to the collapse site to gather information for possible wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits. District Judge Patrick J. Schiltz said the government has “an urgent interest” in recovering victims and clearing the wreckage as soon as possible, and its task would be complicated if access were given.

Across the city, a few survivors of the crash were honored for their heroism. First Student, the company that owned the school bus that became an iconic image of the tragedy, held a ceremony where they presented $5,000 checks to four adults credited with preventing the death or serious injury of about

60 kids on the bus.

Bus driver Kim Dahl, who a company official said had the presence of mind to jam on the parking brake and possibly prevent the bus from sliding off the bridge into the river, made her first public comments since the collapse.

“I don’t feel like a hero,” Dahl said. “I think anybody in the situation would do the same thing.”

Jeremy Hernandez, who also was honored for helping the kids get off the bus, said he had decided to accept an offer of free tuition from Dunwoody College of Technology, which he previously hadn’t been able to afford. Hernandez plans to become an auto mechanic.

Also on Wednesday, state transportation officials faced questions from lawmakers about fast-track plans to replace the bridge and their ability to pull it off. The DOT’s plans call for a 10-lane bridge, two lanes wider than the original bridge, that would be designed to last 100 years and finished by the end of 2008.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said quality problems and delays have plagued another bridge project near her home.

“If we can’t build a bridge in three to five years, why do we think we can do it now in overdrive?” she said.

Others pushed to make the bridge more than a workaday replacement for the fallen span, with a memorial to the victims and the capacity to carry future light-rail trains – even if the state has to pay extra.

“If it was up to us, we’d write a big ol’ check and we’d send you out of here with $500 million,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

It was the Legislature’s first bridge hearing since the Aug. 1 collapse. The room was packed, the faces of three dozen committee members were grave, and the meeting began with a moment of silence for the victims.

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Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski and Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis and Martiga Lohn in St. Paul contributed to this report.