MINNEAPOLIS - Fears that the death toll would rise dramatically as workers searched through the wreckage of a bridge that plunged into the Mississippi River eased Friday when authorities lowered the number of missing from as many as 30 to just eight.
Crews, weary from searching through swirling currents and waters muddied by debris, were encouraged by the news. Dozens were feared dead because the bridge fell during bumper-to-bumper traffic.
'We were surprised that we didn't have more people seriously injured and killed,' Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack told The Associated Press. 'I think it was something of a miracle.'
At least five people were killed and about 100 injured when the Interstate 35W bridge plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River on Wednesday afternoon. At least five of the injured were in critical condition, hospital officials said.
The crash immediately launched questions about the safety record of the bridge, which had been declared 'structurally deficient' as early as 1990.
Investigators reviewed video and were creating computer models of what could have caused the bridge to fail. They also planned to examine and reconstruct parts of the bridge that could give them the most clues.
Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators were particularly interested in learning why a part of the bridge's southern span shifted as it collapsed. The only part of the bridge that shifted could help pinpoint the cause.
'I don't want to leave the impression that we have the answer. What we have is a step forward,' Rosenker said at an afternoon news conference. 'We will be making a very thorough examination of that southern end.'
Firefighters pulled the fifth victim, the driver of a tractor-trailer that was engulfed in flames in the collapse, from the wreckage late Thursday. Video of the burning rig, nose down in the crevasse between two broken concrete slabs, was among the most compelling images shown in the immediate aftermath of the collapse. The driver had not yet been publicly identified.
One person who had been feared missing turned up safe at work, but Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek cautioned that finding the missing could be a slow process because of the scene.
'It's a terrible mess, quite honestly,' Stanek said. 'We don't know how many cars were up on the bridge when it collapsed, we don't know how many victims were inside.'
Search conditions were improving after the Army Corps of Engineers lowered the water by about 2 feet, officials said. But visibility continued to be a problem, and divers couldn't see more than 6 inches in front of them, Hennepin County Capt. Bill Chandler said.