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NEW: Area residents near bridge collapse; local divers may help with recovery efforts

In any disaster, minutes matter. Thom Storm, who runs the Chester Bowl Community Recreation Area in Duluth, was returning from Valley Fair south of Minneapolis Wednesday evening with 42 kids and 11 adults when he saw the brake lights come on ahea...

In any disaster, minutes matter.

Thom Storm, who runs the Chester Bowl Community Recreation Area in Duluth, was returning from Valley Fair south of Minneapolis Wednesday evening with 42 kids and 11 adults when he saw the brake lights come on ahead of him. He didn't think much of it, Storm said, since traffic routinely crawls in that vicinity.

Then he saw state troopers, ambulances and all sorts of other emergency vehicles fly by along the shoulder of Interstate 35W.

"I figured there had been some big accident," Storm said.

The bus detoured onto Interstate 94 East and then 280.

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"A mom called and said, 'Are you guys OK?' She had seen on TV that a school bus had been part of the accident."

That's the first the group knew of the actual collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River.

"I told everybody, 'Call your parents immediately and tell them you're OK,' " Storm said.

It took a little while, since the cellular phone lines were so jammed, but by a little after 7 p.m. all parents except one had learned the bus was safe.

One child had left a message for his mother at her work phone, which she didn't get until the kids pulled in.

For once, Storm was incredibly happy that six kids showed up 10 minutes late to leave.

"We ended up leaving 10 minutes later than we wanted to. We were about 10 minutes away from the bridge collapse," Storm said. "At first I was ticked off at those kids for not following directions."

Brianne Stately, 36, was crossing the nearby Tenth Avenue Bridge just after 6 p.m. on her way from Duluth to Minneapolis when the bridge collapsed. Wednesday night, the former Duluth resident didn't know where two of her three children were, and couldn't reach them because of statewide cellular service problems. Her brother's girlfriend and daughter were also missing in action.

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Luckily, once the dust cleared, everyone was OK.

"We located all of our family -- thank God," Stately said.

St. Louis County Rescue Squad Capt. Tom Crossmon was fielding phone calls until about midnight about the possibility of sending divers to help with recovery operations.

Law enforcement plan to use the metro-area dive team for the first 72 hours "and will probably be calling in resources after that," Crossmon said. "We are very ready to go."

The search for victims is expected to last for days, and Crossmon expects the squad to be called in. The Minnesota duty officer will call in extra personnel as needed, he said.

The St. Louis County squad has eight trained divers, Crossmon said. The team is experienced in using side-scan sonar to search for bodies and has trained for more complicated rescue operations, though the divers have never worked such a complicated operation.

Crossmon has also had several offers of extra equipment or personnel from companies that supply sonar and other underwater searching equipment

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