Jim (AKA Sisyphus) was on the Mississippi last night and provides this first hand report:
I was on a river cruise this evening and witnessed the I-35W Bridge collapse. Here is my account.
Shortly after 6 PM today I was on a Mississippi river dinner cruise organized by my work. We left from Boom Island, heading down river towards St. Paul. Enjoying a cold one as we passed through the Upper Lock by St. Anthony Falls on a pleasant warm evening, the only worry was that the rain wouldn't hold off until our cruise was complete. I made my way up to the front of the boat to watch, along with a half-dozen or so others, as the boat approached the Lower Lock. Then I saw something I hope I never see the like of again.
As our boat approach the entrance of the lock, the bridge a few hundred yards beyond collapsed before our very eyes.
I remember seeing the bridge buckle, and a white vehicle fall into the water. Then, the span of the bridge on the east bank side crumpled up like an accordion and the entire bridge fell towards the river. It was over before my brain could comprehend what I had seen - you just don't expect to see a bridge collapse right before your eyes with no warning. And not being accustomed to looking at the city from on the river, I didn't immediately realize that the bridge I had just seen fall into the Mississippi was the I-35W Bridge.
The minutes after the collapse were eerily quiet. As we stared in disbelief at the wreckage, it began to sink in that we had just witnessed a major catastrophe. The east bank side of the bridge was bent like an accordion and there was a blue SUV or mini-van and two other vehicles on the downward slant toward the river. It seemed odd that the only evidence of a disaster, as of yet, was the fallen bridge itself - no sirens, no helicopters overhead, no flashing lights. Of course, it was far too early for any of that, but it did add to the surrealism of the moment.
Our boat had continued moving forward as if nothing had happened, but our captain soon announced that we would wait in the area to see if our boat could be of assistance in the rescue (we would have to pass down through the lock to be on the level of the collapsed bridge). Time seemed to crawl by, everyone onboard was shaken and we began discussing what we had seen amongst ourselves. Each of us who had been looking at the bridge while it collapsed, remembered seeing one and only one car falling - and each of us remembered a different car. Another oddity is that none of us remember hearing any noise from the collapse at all.
The first indication of a disaster (I mean besides the mangled bridge itself) was the presence of gawkers on the 10th Avenue Bridge, which is located immediately down river from the I-35W Bridge. This seemed unwise as debris from the collapse could very well weaken that bridge too, and it was indeed soon evacuated of non-emergency personnel. About ten minutes after the collapse, dark smoke appeared on the west bank side. This turned out to be a school bus that had caught on fire.
Gradually, emergency vehicles began appearing on both shores. Neon colored stretcher boards began popping up among the ruins. Policemen appeared at the lock and talked to our captain. It seemed they were going to take him up on the offer of assistance and we moved into the lock to await further instructions.
An hour or so after the collapse it was decided that our boat was too large to maneuver in the small area between the end of the lock and the collapsed bridge. We backed out of the lock and turned around as two smaller rescue boats entered. No one was in the mood for dinner so we headed back toward Boom Island. By this time, each bank was thick with ambulances and sirens filled the air. Several helicopters were hovering over the area (keeping plenty of distance between themselves). A little further up river, each bank and the Stone Arch Bridge were packed with onlookers.
I did not see how anyone could survive such a dramatic fall, but now watching the coverage, it seems that some have. Needless to say, all of the victims and those working to save them are in my prayers.
UPDATE: Security camera video of the collapse, on CNN.