MINNEAPOLIS – It looked as though an earthquake had hit.
From across the Twin Cities and from small towns beyond, rescue workers, doctors, nurses and construction workers flooded into downtown Minneapolis early Wednesday night, making their way past Twins fans at the Metrodome, past thousands of gawkers aiming their cell phone cameras at the crumpled steel frame and a bridge deck sliced into three pieces.
At 6:45 p.m. local time, more than a half-hour after disaster struck, police yelled at the onlookers to get back, off the north section of the bridge where rescue workers below searched for survivors. They feared that section could still collapse on them.
Rescue crews from North St. Paul, Vadnais Heights and Maplewood blared their sirens, creeping through the crowd of onlookers. But once inside the ring of pandemonium, this catastrophe became an orderly scene of grim determination and efficiency.
Ambulances queued up, police escorting them one-by-one down into the bridge area. The rescue teams had rehearsed for this kind of catastrophe. There was little shouting, no chaos. A state command center was quickly opened to coordinate the rescue.
“It looked like a terrorist attack, a complete catastrophe,” said impromptu rescuer Ryan Murphey, 30, of Minneapolis. “But everyone there was very calm and organized.”
Water cannons shot streams at smoldering vehicles. The walking wounded, necks in braces, were guided off the bridge and out of the area.
Overhead and across the river valley, the sound of television helicopters and sirens cut through the hot breeze. Rescue workers gingerly crept onto the bridge, peering over cracked bridge sections looking for survivors in the cars and trucks half-submerged in the gray water of the Mississippi rippling against this unexpected obstacle to its path south.
To the west, an ominous sky dropped cloud-to-ground lightning and dime-size hail, threatening to make the already horrific rescue scene even more dangerous for workers
Across the Twin Cities, stunned families stared at their televisions. Frantic calls to relatives driving home in the tail-end of rush hour added to the crush of emergency calls and cell phone circuits jammed.
Melissa Hughes of Minneapolis was the driver of one of six cars under the north end of the bridge.
“It seemed like people and things were in the air that weren’t supposed to be there,” she said.
Four drivers and a 12-year-old boy were huddled nearby, their cars in the water where they had slid as the north end collapsed.
Boats pulled by emergency vehicles moved in quickly. Nearby, a bridge immediately east of the collapsed bridge was filled with emergency vehicles. A crane was on one section of the bridge, too, attempting to remove concrete barriers.
In office buildings on the riverbank near the University of Minnesota, office workers felt the collapsed and rushed to their windows.
“I thought an airplane flew too low over our building. It just shook,” said Danielle Behling of St. Paul. University students ran to the river.
Stephanie Bakkum was making dinner when she heard a “huge explosion.” She and some friends rushed to the site just as survivors began crawling up from the collapsed freeway section.
Within seconds, another loud explosion shook the ground as a tanker blew up.
As emergency crews worked, shaken bystanders stared. Many said they had driven across the bridge minutes before it collapsed.
One was Ken Savage, who drove an empty dump truck across the bridge half an hour before it collapsed. He said every time he drove across the bridge, with all the construction going on, he wondered what would happen if he was loaded with topsoil.
Joe Hughes, 18, of Lake Elmo was helping someone move nearby when he heard the noise. He and a friend, Jared Powers, 18, of Mahtomedi ran to the bridge to help carry stretchers. They saw crushed cars, a burning school bus and cars floating in the water.
He said the people they carried out were mostly silent or unconscious, except for the last man.
“He wanted to call his fiancee,” said Hughes.