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Blaming begins in Minneapolis bridge collapse

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Politicians trying to account for one of the worst bridge collapses in U.S. history cast blame ranging from engineering faults to the Iraq war on Friday, while divers tried to reach the bodies of more victims in the Mississippi River’s treacherous waters.

As investigators probed Wednesday’s collapse that killed at least five people, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said outside experts would review the decisions of state engineers to shore up problems with the heavily-traveled 40-year-old bridge in central Minneapolis.

Engineers had decided to periodically inspect the steel superstructure beneath the Interstate 35W bridge and bolt on reinforcing plates where any flaws were found. But that work, which Pawlenty said fit in the state’s budget, was postponed by resurfacing and repair work that was going on when the bridge buckled and fell.

“Experts that we rely on, technical experts and engineers, made some decisions about what needed to be done. They thought they were making an appropriate decision for their reasons, and now those decisions will have to be reviewed,” Pawlenty said. A private engineering firm had been hired for the review.

“The bridge was declared fit for service,” he said. “There will be tough questions asked, including by me, and we will get to the bottom of this.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, suggested Bush administration spending on the Iraq war may have crimped funding for domestic projects such as road and bridge construction, and for such infrastructure projects as new levees for New Orleans.

“We’ve spent $500 billion in Iraq and we have bridges falling down in this country,” Klobuchar told MSNBC. “I see a connection between messed-up priorities.”

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Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said billions of dollars were available for road and bridge repairs.

The bridge was a vital link over the Mississippi River and the most heavily used bridge in Minnesota with roughly 140,000 vehicles passing over each day.

“It is striking the bridge was carrying a load of traffic it was not designed for,” said the Democratic Speaker of Minnesota’s House, State Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Estimates ranged as high as $500 million to rebuild it.

Visiting first lady Laura Bush praised the city’s response: “We’ve seen the strength of your community, and because of that we’re confident the bridge will be rebuilt and your city will heal.”

President George W. Bush is scheduled to tour the scene on Saturday.

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Pawlenty said a special legislative session may be in the offing to address funding to rebuild the bridge. Pawlenty’s critics blamed him for vetoing a state gas-tax increase that would have boosted funding for construction projects.

Meanwhile, rescuers spent an entire day extracting the fifth fatality from under mounds of debris, Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack said. He said more victims were certain to be found.

Divers searched submerged cars that tumbled 65 feet (20 meters) into the Mississippi River when the bridge collapsed with a roar.

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“This is very dangerous work because the divers can get caught in the debris, some of which is razor-sharp,” Clack said.

Divers battled swift currents, and had to feel their way in the muddy waters around twisted steel and chunks of concrete.

“You got gas in there, oil. Besides, the Mississippi River is not the cleanest place. You didn’t have any visibility, you just felt,” Minneapolis Fire Department diver Raoul Raymose said on CBS’ “Early Show.”

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek cautioned that his estimate of eight people still missing was “fluid” and subject to change.

Twenty-four of the nearly 100 people injured in the disaster remained in hospitals, including five who were in critical condition, a hospital spokesman said.

Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington