By Caren Bohan Aug 4, 2007, 19:00 GMT
MINNEAPOLIS - Divers searched for bodies in debris in the murky Mississippi on Saturday as President George W. Bush toured the site of this week's deadly rush-hour bridge collapse and promised quick federal help in rebuilding.
Bush got a bird's eye view of the ruined bridge in a 10-minute helicopter tour, then donned an orange hard hat and wind-breaker to walk a section of the 40-year-old bridge on foot as rain fell.
Local officials have confirmed five deaths and seven people missing after the Wednesday evening bridge collapse, but searches were ongoing.
'It's too early for us to know how many people are missing or dead because we are unsure how many people are under the debris,' said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback.
Divers battled swift currents to search amid twisted steel and chunks of concrete for submerged cars that had tumbled 65 feet from the eight-lane span, which was a vital link across the river.
U.S. lawmakers expressed dismay over the deteriorating state of U.S. infrastructure.
'A bridge shouldn't just fall down,' Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, said on Thursday as Congress passed legislation to set up a commission to analyze U.S. bridges, dams and public works. 'We must take steps now to ensure this doesn't happen again.'
Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat, noted that in 2002, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that 167,566 of U.S. bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
'Since then, that number has grown to, of the 597,340 bridges in the national bridge inventory, 26 percent are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,' he said during the U.S. House of Representatives debate on the bridge repair funds.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Minnesota, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters pronounced America's highways and bridges safe, even though most of them were built 50 years ago.
'We need to have that important conversation about how we fund infrastructure in the future,' Peters said. 'But immediately let's take care of the situation in Minnesota.'
The eight-lane span 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.
'Our message to the Twin Cities is we want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible,' Bush told reporters. 'We understand this is a main artery of life here.'
Reconstruction estimates ranged as high as $500 million, though White House officials said the $250 million Congress is prepared to approve later Saturday would be sufficient.
Bush met with rescuers and victims' families, and spoke to Gary Babineau, 24, of Blaine, Minnesota, who helped screaming children out of the wrecked school bus after the bridge collapsed under his pick-up truck.
'It was a freak accident,' Babineau said. 'I don't think it's anyone's fault.'