Bush in flying visit to collapsed bridge

FLYING over Minneapolis's collapsed highway bridge, President George Bush got a bird's-eye view yesterday of the concrete slabs and twisted steel that once spanned the Mississippi River.

The President's Marine One helicopter circled the site several times during a 10-minute tour, allowing him to gaze down upon the muddy waters where at least eight people are still missing.

Bush saw pieces of the highway still littered with vehicles, including a school bus, as well as rescue boats searching for victims.

A cloudy sky and slight drizzle greeted Bush upon his arrival. His itinerary included a walking tour of the area before receiving briefings on recovery efforts, and meeting the families of some of the victims.

Bush - who is still criticised for his administration's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina - arrived in Minnesota just three days after the I-35W bridge buckled on Wednesday. The collapse sent dozens of cars sliding in the Mississippi River, killing at least five people and injuring about 100.

The missing include a 23-year-old pregnant woman and her two-year-old daughter, who was in the back seat of the family's car when the bridge crumbled.

Late on Friday, both the Congress and the Senate approved a 182m federal grant to help rebuild the bridge. In his weekly radio address, Bush said: "This is a difficult time for the community in Minneapolis, but the people there are decent and resilient, and they will get through these painful hours.

"As they do, they know that all of America stands with them, and that we will do all we can to help them to recover and to rebuild."

The White House said the President would provide the necessary funding to get the span quickly rebuilt.

"This is just the beginning of the financial assistance we will make available to support the state in its recovery efforts," Bush said.

Yesterday, engineers were still checking around 700 similar steel truss bridges across the US. Federal transportation officials have also announced plans to investigate the agency responsible for inspecting highway bridges.

The inquiry will focus on the Federal Highway Administration's inspection programme and ways to improve the agency's oversight of more than 70,000 bridges that have been found structurally deficient. Federal and state officials are working with the National Transportation Safety Board to discover why the bridge collapsed.

"Clearly this was not something that we expected to happen given the history of this bridge, the inspection process and how this bridge was rated," said transportation secretary Mary Peters during the flight with Bush to Minnesota.

She spoke about the need to find better ways in the future to prioritise spending on roads and bridges.

"We certainly have ageing infrastructure here in the United States... but I do believe that American highways and bridges are safe," Peters said.

The government has announced a 3.65m grant to help remove tons of debris and reroute traffic from the major artery in and out of Minneapolis. It normally carries around 141,000 vehicles per day.

Every time a disaster occurs in the US, the administration's reaction is compared with its slow response to Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

In March, Bush visited survivors of tornadoes that ripped through Alabama and Georgia. In April, he offered words of hope at Virginia Tech University after a gunman killed 32 and committed suicide. In May, Bush went to Kansas after a tornado wiped out the tiny town of Greensburg.

The cause of the collapse is not yet known but city leaders said the low speeds of the traffic at the time - allowing drivers to stop before plunging into the river - and low water levels could have contributed to the relatively low death toll.

"We were surprised that we didn't have more people seriously injured and killed," said Minneapolis fire chief Jim Clack.

"I think it was something of a miracle."

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