families

Somber wait, fervent hopes

Some look for good news

others hear of deaths

August 03, 2007|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MINNEAPOLIS -- The couple were having their typical after-work conversation Wednesday. Sherry Engebretsen, a financial director, told her husband, Ron, that she had had a long day of meetings. He said they should talk about it later, when she got home. She said, "OK, I'll see you in a few minutes."

That was about 5:45 p.m., and Sherry Engebretsen was on her way to the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River. When she had not arrived home by the time dinner would usually be on the table, her daughter Jessica said she "just started calling and calling and calling" her mother's cell phone.

There was no answer. Yesterday, the Engebretsens were among an untold number of families awaiting information about the missing.

The family got bad news late in the day when the county medical examiner listed Sherry Engebretsen as one of four people confirmed dead in the collapse of the I-35W bridge Wednesday.

Others still held out hope that their missing sons, mothers or cousins had lost their way or were alive but unconscious in a hospital.

The authorities said 20 to 30 people remained unaccounted for after hours of searching on land and in the water.

At the Holiday Inn Metrodome, on the north side of the river near the bridge, the ballroom has been transformed from a place of celebration into a waiting room of the saddest sort, a somber chamber where the loved ones of the missing wait for news.

Every once in a while, the stress became too much, and a mother or sister or best friend walked briskly through the lobby, tears streaming.

"It was my son, my son," said a Nigerian woman who gave her name as Mafe. Asked what information she had been given, Mafe said, "Nothing."

Mafe, accompanied by a friend, seemed to lose some of her strength as she walked between the double doors at the hotel's entrance. Her back to the glass, she wailed.

"I've called his cell phone so many times," she said. "It's not picking up. Not picking up."

Asked why she thought her son might be among the dead, Mafe said he was never out of touch and that he had told her Wednesday evening that he was heading toward the I-35W span with his girlfriend.

Mafe's friend tried to calm her. "She's so devastated," the friend said. "She can't speak anymore."

In the ballroom, volunteers from the American Red Cross registered families and tried to guide them, with the help of counselors and chaplains, through the agony of the long wait. About 60 people showed up on Wednesday night. Several dozen registered yesterday.

By early afternoon, the realization that scores of people were not going to be pulled safely from the water was beginning to set in.

Abdiaziz Ahmed, a taxi driver, said that a cousin, Sadia Adam Sahal, was missing. Ahmed had spent the night and morning shuttling his extended family from hospital to hospital, and back to the Holiday Inn again to check for updates.

"We couldn't sleep," he said. "How can you sleep if all of your family is not OK?"

Sahal was driving a white Toyota Highlander on Wednesday, Ahmed said. She was with her year-old daughter, Hannah, he said.

The Rev. Devin Miller of the Emmanuel Tabernacle church in south Minneapolis, said he and other volunteers in the makeshift family waiting room at the Holiday Inn were trying to offer comfort, an arm around a shoulder, a hand held, prayers said.

"There's just this giant sense of `I don't know,'" he said. "The story is always the same: `I talked to my brother at 5:30, he said he was on his way home, I never heard from him again.'"

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