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Minnesota Bridge Death Toll up to Eight

Author / Coordinator: Marisol Bello
USA TODAY
August 2007

MINNEAPOLIS — The official death toll in the devastating collapse of a highway bridge here last week rose to eight after rescue divers found what appeared to be three bodies Thursday and another body Friday.

The Hennepin County medical examiner's office identified one victim as Peter Joseph Hausmann, 47, a computer security specialist and former missionary who was on his way to pick up a friend for dinner.

Medical examiner Andrew Baker did not identify the other remains. He said at a briefing Thursday night that the additional remains appeared to be of two people. He said they were tentatively identified as people who have been on the list of those missing, but he needed to do more testing to be sure of the identifications.

Hausmann's boss, speaking Tuesday as divers searched the murky Mississippi River, praised the father of four as a dedicated worker and key member of the management team who knew how to connect with his clients.

"There are so many words to describe Peter. Genuine. Honest," said Jeff Olejnik, president of Assurity River Group. "He had the utmost integrity."
Olejnik said that while Hausmann's friends and colleagues at the small firm hoped for his safe return, they knew it was unlikely. "It's been a somber past few days. … We have a lot of healing to do," he said.

Rescue workers have been searching for eight people missing since the Aug. 1 collapse that injured 100 people. Five people died immediately or within two days.

Besides Hausmann, divers have searched for a 23-year-old pregnant nursing student and her 2-year-old daughter, a construction worker nicknamed "Jolly," a Greek folk dance teacher who recently moved here from Detroit, a mother and her 20-year-old son, and a male college student.

As the families of the missing wait for answers, those who have buried their loved ones and those who were injured are trying to return to their daily lives in the face of such calamity.

At least two families are considering lawsuits against the state and the private companies that did bridge repairs and inspections, says Jim Schwebel, a personal injury attorney representing the families.

"There's a huge vacuum where no one is talking about the victims. How do they go forward?" Schwebel says. "What about these people whose lives were altered in so dramatic a fashion?"

He said one of his clients, the widow of Artemio Trinidad-Mena, had to turn to a local foundation for money to return her husband's body to his native Mexico.

Nineteen people who were on the bridge have filed claims for compensation for their injuries or lost property, says Jim Schwartz, a spokesman for the Department of Administration.

Minnesota has a $1 million limit on the total amount it will pay for all claims from the incident. Schwebel says that won't go far. He says hospital bills for one person alone could reach $1 million.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he is considering creating a state fund for the victims, but he has given no details.

As the investigation into the cause of the collapse moves forward, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker says his agency continues to study whether large metal gusset plates used to hold the bridge together were improperly designed, but he cautioned that it is too early to say the plates caused the accident or that they could be a risk in other bridges.

Gusset plates were found cracked in the wreckage, leading to fears that they might not be as strong as the bridge design called for. The finding prompted the federal Department of Transportation to issue a warning not to place too much weight on bridges during construction.