MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Only hours into the search for bridge victims it was apparent. Diving amid the tangled web of wreckage would need an elite team, trained in mass tragedies.
“I recall it was an immediate response from the state of Minnesota to the President of the United States,” U.S. Navy diver Brian Bennett said.
Bennett and Noah Gottesmann were among the 16 U.S. Navy divers assigned the difficult job. They are part of the same dive team that pulled bodies and data recorders from the crash of TWA Flight 800, 11 years earlier.
“We honestly didn’t know what was down there until we did a survey of it,” Bennett said.
The first five victims of the 35W bridge collapse were recovered by local dive teams. But deeper into the twisted wreckage were thought to be another eight people who were known to be missing.
“The collapse was a lot of sharp metal, debris concrete, rebar,” Gottesmann said.
As the team’s underwater footage shows, water conditions were murky, muddy and treacherous.
“Rebar, sharp objects, and you’re crawling through 20 feet of wreckage to get to where you needed to go,” Bennett said.
Working from an Army Corps of Engineers barge that just happened to be moored upriver that day, they’d cover every inch of the wreckage. Tethered to oxygen tanks above the surface, the divers could stay submerged much longer that conventional scuba divers.
Yet, despite the sobering reality of retrieving dead bodies from the wreckage, divers say they left Minneapolis with positive feelings about their service in those weeks of August 2007, mostly due to the help they gave so many grieving families.
“We were honored to be able to bring closure to the families and for taking part in something like that,” Gottesmann said.
It’s a connection that brought them back to the Twin Cities recently to lay a wreath of white lilies into the river, a touching remembrance of the 13 lives lost and a community still stinging with pain.