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Searchers find 2 more Minn. bridge collapse victims, bringing death toll to 7

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     MINNEAPOLIS — Searchers found two more bodies Thursday in the wreckage of the interstate bridge, bringing the death toll to seven with at least six missing more than a week after the bridge crumbled into the Mississippi River, authorities said.
    Crews have been searching the site for the past week for eight people missing and presumed dead in the Aug. 1 collapse.
    Dave Hayhoe, the police homicide unit commander, announced the recoveries ahead of a briefing on the investigation. He said the bodies were recovered by divers, but he gave no other information.
    ‘‘Right now the first priority is notifying the families,’’ Hayhoe said.
    The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office said the first body was found shortly after noon and wasn’t immediately identified.
    Among the eight are a pregnant nursing student and her 2-year-old daughter, a construction worker nicknamed ‘‘Jolly,’’ and a former missionary who had been on his way to meet a friend for dinner.
    As the recovery operation continued Thursday, so did the investigation into the cause of the collapse. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday they had found design flaws in the bridge’s gusset plates, which help tie the steel beams together.
    That discovery prompted Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to advise states to carefully consider any additional stress placed on bridges during construction projects. An 18-person crew had been working on the Interstate 35W span when it collapsed during the evening rush hour.
    J. Richard Capka, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said Thursday that the agency would quickly advise transportation agencies around the country of steps they should take if a systematic problem with gusset plates was found, though he said no such advisory was in the works.
    ‘‘Gusset plates have been around a long time, and they’ve been a reliable feature, and we have no indication that they’ve ever been part of a suspect bridge problem or a bridge failure before,’’ Capka said.
    ‘‘They have not concluded that they’ve discovered anything specific that might have contributed to the collapse,’’ he added.
    State officials have announced tentative plans for a replacement bridge to be opened by the end of 2008. Gov. Tim Pawlenty also said he was willing to reverse his long-standing opposition to a state gas tax increase to pay for infrastructure improvements in the state.
    President Bush on Thursday dismissed raising the federal gasoline tax to repair the nation’s bridges, though — as proposed Wednesday by House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. — at least until Congress changes the way it spends highway money.
    ‘‘The way it seems to have worked is that each member on that (Transportation) committee gets to set his or her own priorities first,’’ Bush said. ‘‘That’s not the right way to prioritize the people’s money. Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities.’’
    At the bridge site, recovery crews have removed several vehicles from the river in the last two days, and Navy divers have searched for possible victims in and around the others.
    In all, 88 vehicles have been located, both in the river and amid the broken concrete wreckage of the bridge, according to the State Patrol.
    NTSB investigators have been trying to pinpoint where on the bridge the collapse began. Observations from a helicopter camera Wednesday found several ‘‘tensile fractures’’ in the superstructure on the north side of the bridge, but nothing that appeared to show where the collapse began, the NTSB said.
    Investigators were still working to verify the loads and stresses on the beams, as well as materials in the plates.
    They also were looking into reports of wobbling before the collapse.
    The company that was doing construction work at the site, Progressive Contractors Inc., rejected a report that a worker noticed unusual swaying of the bridge in the days before its collapse. The company said it didn’t believe any of its work contributed to the bridge failure but hadn’t responded directly to claims of wobbling.
    ‘‘We have now met with every single worker who was on the bridge when it collapsed,’’ Tom Sloan, vice president of the company’s bridge division, said in a news release Wednesday. ‘‘None of them observed or reported any unusual swaying.’’
    The eight people reported missing and feared dead in the bridge collapse have been identified as Christine Sacorafas, 45, of White Bear Lake; Vera Peck, 50, and her son Richard Chit, 20, both of Bloomington; Greg Jolstad, 45, of Mora; Peter Hausmann, 47, of Rosemount; Sadiya Sahal, 23, of St. Paul, and her 2-year-old daughter, Hanah; and Scott Sathers, 29, of Maple Grove.
    Associated Press writers Archie Ingersoll in Minneapolis and Frederic J. Frommer and Jennifer Loven in Washington contributed to this report.

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