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Published Aug. 6, 2007

There was a feeling of helplessness at the site of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse Thursday, well after the emergency crews switched from a rescue operation to one of recovering the dead.

Submerged cars sat in the Mississippi, guaranteeing that the death toll will rise above the official figure of four. The danger of unpredictable currents kept dive crews from reaching them.

But amid all the death were untold scores of people amazed to have survived the fall.

Melissa Hughes, a warehouse manager, remembers the view from the bridge tumbling around her.

"All of a sudden, things were up in the air. Things weren't on the ground anymore," she said. "I swear I saw a construction worker in midair. Then I had that free-falling feeling."

As suddenly as it plunged, her car had stopped. Then she heard a huge crash as her back window exploded. Later, looking over the scene, she realized that the noise had come from a black pickup truck that had flipped and fallen on top of her car.

"I heard people yelling. There was one person standing outside the vehicle just screaming in pain, grabbing his back and just falling to his knees."

Jay Reeves, driving home from his office at the American Red Cross, saw the bridge collapse while on a parkway that passes under it. As he pulled onto the shoulder and opened his car door, the first thing he heard was children's voices, screaming from inside a bus, its back end poking toward the sky.

"Screaming kids are good," Reeves said. "That means they're alive and full of a lot of energy. As a paramedic, that's the best thing, I'll tell you. If it's quiet, that means I've got a busload of children who can't help themselves."