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'IT JUST DROPPED. ... THEN WE SAT.'

Activities leader James Hanson, 21, a University of Minnesota senior, was dozing on the Waite House community center's rented bus and thinking the group should have taken a detour after its outing to a suburban water park. Sasha Bouye, 23, a pregnant youth program specialist, sunk wearily in her seat.

The bus was due back at 6 p.m. Hanson looked at his watch. It was already 6:05 p.m.

"This'll take forever," he thought.

At that moment, the bus went weightless, Bouye said. "It just dropped. ... That was the first thing. Then we sat. Then we dropped again, the same exact way, and then we dropped again."

"Three drops," she said. "It really was like a ladder, like falling down the steps or something. People were yelling. People were, 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God! What's going on?' "

With a vast exhalation of dust, the "35W," as it is called in Minnesota, was collapsing into the Mississippi River.

Of the 61 people on board - including 50 Waite children, eight Waite staffers, the driver and the driver's two children - only a handful remained in the hospital Thursday, according to Tony Wagner of Pillsbury United Communities, which operates the Waite center.

- - -

Four minutes after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, police Sgt. Ed Nelson was among those rushing into the dust-filled scene of twisted metal, crushed cars and chunks of concrete turned up like gravestones.

"The first vehicle we came up on was completely submerged and crushed," he said. "I asked a gentleman if he saw anybody get out of that vehicle. He looked at me and said, 'That was me.' "

- - -

Dr. John Hick found a hellish scene at the south side of the bridge on Wednesday. But the emergency room physician didn't see the worst of it until he reached the north side 30 minutes later, after helping to set up a triage point.

The 64-foot-high span is not as high above the riverbank on the south side, so those injuries were less serious. On the other bank, there was little he could do.

"If you drop 60 feet, that's about the same thing as hitting a brick wall," said Hick. "At the time that I got to the north side, the only people who were still in their vehicles were the people who had died."

- - -

Aron Dahlgren, a 23-year-old University of Minnesota graduate student, lay trapped inside his 2000 GMC Sierra, the vehicle pointed nose down, up against another car.

He felt something cold and wet. It felt like blood. Was he alive?

Then his truck rolled forward. He realized the cool liquid was the iced tea he had been carrying. He shook off the stupor and climbed toward safety.

"A lot of it's a blur," he said. "I just pulled myself out. I don't know if I opened the door. I pulled myself probably through the window. I remember my feet getting tangled in the seat belt."

- - -

The river was slick with gasoline, dirty and dark. Raul Ramos dived in.

There was a car underwater, a woman in the driver's seat. Ramos, of Minneapolis Fire Department Rescue 9, could see rough chunks of concrete and a tangle of metal rods jutting up at odd angles, treacherous in the murk. A slight current pushed at him. He swam.

Ramos reached the car. He yanked open the door, cut the woman from her seatbelt and kicked to the surface, cradling her across his chest. The police officer holding Ramos' tether rope pulled them both to what passed, barely, for safety, a stable piece of wreckage near the bank of the Mississippi.

Ramos can't say what became of the woman. It is not his job to linger.

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