Loved ones wait, hope as divers search river

MINNEAPOLIS - They huddled Thursday in a nondescript Holiday Inn along the Mississippi River, hoping and praying that their loved ones will reappear or call them or that a hospital will give them good news.

The somber relatives sat quietly at the center set up by the American Red Cross, and were greeted occasionally by politicians and officials, as divers prepared to search submerged cars for more victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

Police have confirmed four dead and 79 injured, but the toll is expected to rise as more cars are discovered. There were 20 to 30 people reported missing, and police say it is unlikely any of them survived.

Periodically throughout the day, one of the 60 to 70 relatives gathered inside emerged from the hotel cocoon and was immediately surrounded by reporters. Police escorted away some of those too distraught to talk.

"I've never wanted to see my brother so much in my life," said Kristi Foster, who came to the hotel after not hearing from her brother since Tuesday. "It's overwhelming not knowing. I want to see my brother, and my son wants to see his uncle."

"It's really, really sad," said Amina Mohamed, whose 22-year-old cousin, Sadia Alsahal, was six months pregnant and driving with her 2-year-old when they disappeared.

"I can't really talk about it," said Mohamed as she walked to a mosque to pray. "I get emotional."

The excruciating wait for families was extended Thursday afternoon when officials pulled divers out of the water because the debris and strong current made it too dangerous.

Starting at 10:45 a.m., divers had entered the river in teams of four.

One diver said the water was so murky that visibility was only about 6 inches.

Police officials were using

sonar-imaging equipment to look for submerged vehicles. The Army Corps of Engineers lowered the 9-foot-deep water by about a foot to make submerged cars more visible and the search easier, police officials said.

Divers have located the four most accessible vehicles, which they will try to search when recovery efforts resume, perhaps today. Police are also poring over video footage of cars amid the wreckage. Many of their occupants managed to escape.

"It's very tough," Police Chief Tim Dolan said in a brief interview after visiting with the families at the hotel. "As we get a license plate, we're running it to see if it matches with anyone who's missing. But it's car by car. It's very slow."

Meanwhile, under a cloudless sky, residents from across the region drove, biked, and took the train to the site of the collapse of the eight-lane bridge. They snapped photos and took out binoculars to get a closer look, climbing to a grassy hilltop in Gold Medal Park to see the crumpled wreckage - large chunks of concrete floating in the river, pieces of steel towering out of the water like a broken Erector Set construction, and cars strewn everywhere.

"We just wanted to see this," said Dave Singel, 29, who drove 20 miles from suburban Apple Valley with his wife and three small children. "It's the gravity of everything. We've never seen anything like it."

"It's almost like you're visiting a shrine or a cemetery," said Patty Nail, 55, who took the train from nearby Bloomington. "The grave is kind of the river now, you know? People just want to come, almost just to pay their respects."

Minneapolis churches Thursday held memorial services, and mechanics called into local radio stations to offer free oil changes to residents who donated blood to aid in the recovery.

The families at the Holiday Inn, which is close to the collapsed bridge, gathered in a ballroom that normally hosts wedding receptions, business meetings, and other private parties.

At a table in the hallway, families registered their names and the names of their missing relatives. Several police officers stood guard.

Cots, pillows, and blankets were brought in, and community organizations donated pasta, fruit, and sandwiches, said Amanda Mark, Red Cross spokeswoman. Chaplains and mental health specialists were there to provide solace and counsel as families commiserated with one another.

"There are kids, parents, and grandparents," Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek told reporters after visiting with the families. "They come in all shapes and sizes, and that's indicative of all of this."

The search for bodies is expected to continue for days, according to police.

"They are hurting," Stanek said. "There's a lot of questions, and not a whole lot of answers."

Ronald Engebretsen, 57, who last heard from his wife, Sherry, 60, in a telephone call about an hour before the collapse, waited for hours at the hotel with their two adopted daughters.

"We're hanging on," he said Thursday morning.

Last evening, officials said she was one of the four confirmed dead.

"We know the finality of where she is now," Engebretsen said in an interview. "She was a great person ... and she loved life, lived it to its fullest."