Fifth body recovered from US bridge collapse

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Fears that an interstate bridge collapse in Minnesota might produce dozens of deaths eased today as US authorities said the number of missing, once thought to be as many as 30, was just eight.

At least five people were killed and 79 injured when the Interstate 35W bridge plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River during Wednesday's rush hour.

Firefighters pulled the fifth victim, the driver of an articulated lorry that was engulfed in flames immediately after the collapse, from the wreckage late yesterday, fire department spokeswoman Kristi Rollwagen said.

More bodies had been spotted in the fast-moving currents, which were "even more treacherous" today than yesterday, Sheriff Rich Stanek said. But the death toll, while expected to grow, was not expected to reach the numbers that the disaster amid bumper-to-bumper, two-lane traffic might have produced.

Crews planned to focus on 13 areas on the upstream side of the collapse, including four vehicles that were partially submerged and had been checked briefly, he said.

The search efforts were to continue even as authorities reviewed the safety record of the bridge, which had been designated "structurally deficient" as early as 1990.

The eight-lane I-35W bridge, which carried 141,000 vehicles a day, was in the midst of mostly resurfacing repairs when it buckled during the Wednesday evening rush hour.

Dozens of cars plunged into the river, some falling on top of one another. A school bus sat on the angled concrete.

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker said his investigators got two big breaks yesterday with a surveillance video showing the collapse and a computer programme that would analyse how the bridge failed. Those two things would speed their work and allow them to do a smaller reconstruction of part of the bridge span, rather than the whole thing.

Despite the powerful images of devastation from the collapse, some believed the design of the bridge reduced the death toll.

Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said the bridge's underlying arch truss stopped heavy pieces of steel from falling onto vehicles when the cars plunged into the water.

Govenor Tim Pawlenty responded by ordering an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs, but said the state was never warned that the I-35W bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired.

"There was a view that the bridge was ultimately and eventually going to need to be replaced," he said.

More than 70,000 bridges across the United States are rated structurally deficient like the I-35W bridge, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than 188 billion dollars (£94billion).

Authorities cautioned not to read too much into the "structurally deficient" tag. The designation means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement. It was not a candidate for replacement until 2020.

The collapsed bridge is one of 1,160 bridges in that category, which amounts to 8 percent of bridges in the state. Nationally, about 12 percent of bridges are labelled "structurally deficient".

During the 1990s, inspections found fatigue cracks and corrosion in the steel around the bridge's joints. Those problems were repaired. Starting in 1993, the bridge was inspected annually instead of every other year.