Scuba-duba do

For more than a half hour today, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and Captain Bill Chandler, a 28-year veteran of the sheriff's office, gave details about the diving mission that, while hardly rosy, certainly offered some good news. On the east side river flats down the hill from the Weisman Art Museum near the Washington Avenue Bridge, some 50 reporters strained to hear as several choppers swooped over head. But the prognosis was clear: It's a far cry from yesterday.

"Recovery operations are better than expected," Stanek said.

There are a few reasons for this, even though weather conditions--clear, with tolerable winds--aren't much diferent today. But chief among them is that the Army Corps of Engineers has managed to lower water levels at the bridge site by as much as two feet.

Another factor is that crews have simply covered more territory, and seem to have hit upon a streak of good luck: This morning they started searching upstream from the wreckage, toward the east bank/northbound side of the river, something that will continue into the evening. Yesterday divers were searching downstream from the wreckage.

Still, the divers are in a risky business, and they are tethered on lines that are only being let out a foot at a time. "From a supervisor's standpoint, we're scared all the time," Chandler said. "And visibility is terrible."

At its deepest point, the river is 14 feet in the area, and currents are still strong. Chandler explained that they cannot run sonar while divers are in the water, and the process is tedious. "Divers can talk to us [via radio] on shore and to each other, as if we were all on a telephone line," he explained. "There is no visibility, so they have to find the object, go face-to-face with the license plate, call it out to us, go around the car, and then go into the car."

Divers have been able to "clear" as many as 12 cars total. (This is just part of the two-day recovery operation, this does not include the first hours of the rescue mission when the bridge first went down). Five were cleared and four of those pulled to shore this morning. As for the total number of cars in the water, Stanek conceded that officials still really have no idea, but Chandler pointed out that there are 60 cars "in the wreckage, in the collapsed zone of the bridge."

(He added that "we're finding cars with the windows down, which indicated people got out.")

As for the news this morning that only eight people are presumed missing at this point, Stanek was cautious not to hew too hard to that figure. "We're non-committal about exact numbers," Stanek said. He also wouldn't offer a time frame on how long the recovery mission would continue.

Chandler put a finer point on it. "We're not going to stop until everything is clear," he said. "We are under the assumption that there are people in that water."

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