« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Published October 01 2007

Crews remove last of wreckage

MINNEAPOLIS – For the crews that removed the twisted wreckage of the Interstate 35W bridge from the Mississippi River, it was a challenging, tiring and unforgettable experience.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for any of us guys,” said Tom Skluzacek, a general superintendent on the site who works for St. Paul-based Carl Bolander & Sons Co. “I mean, hopefully.”

Workers hauled the last piece of steel from the river last week, reaching a major milestone toward replacing the bridge that fell Aug. 1, killing 13 people and injuring around 100.

Days after the collapse, Bolander won a multimillion-dollar contract to dismantle the wreckage. Once all the victims were recovered, the demolition began in earnest.

Crews worked around the clock at first, and 50 to 60 people are still putting in 12-hour shifts six days a week so reconstruction can begin, probably in mid-October.

“This wasn’t a normal demolition. This was a dismantling actually, because of the way we had to go about it, “ Skluzacek said. “They needed to, as much as possible, save it as evidence.”

Demolition crews usually rely on brute force. But because the reasons behind the collapse are still under investigation, this job required a complex interplay of investigators, surveyors, divers and crane operators to preserve any clues hidden in the mangled steel as to why the bridge fell.

Divers used oxyacetylene torches underwater to cut beams free and then hooked them up to cranes. Some pieces weighed as much as 60,000 pounds.

“It could take an hour, it could take five hours. It all depends how much of a mess it is, how much needs to be cut off of it,” said Eric Herfendal, with Minot, N.D.-based Adventure Divers, which sent about a half-dozen divers to the site.

Pieces were then loaded onto barges and floated a short way downriver. Workers estimate that as many as 2,000 tons of steel have been documented and set aside for study.

Dave Schlenker, of Newport-based Portable Barge Services, jumped at the chance to be part of the crew.

“I wanted to be involved in it ...” Schlenker said. “Just the magnitude of it. It’s what I do, work on the water. I thought I might be able to help out.”

Evan Mackey, Bolander’s division manager for demolition, said more than 20,000 hours have been racked up with no time lost to injuries – a remarkable feat given the difficult terrain, the size of the site, the weight of the materials and the speed of the cleanup effort.

Besides the wreckage, divers found a couple of strange things in the water including some cars, probably stolen, that had been ditched in the Mississippi long ago.

And, said Mike Norton, a demolition supervisor for Bolander: “A couple big (catfish) were down there hiding underneath some beams one day.”