MINNEAPOLIS, MN. (CBS/AP) --
It's amazing how many people survived the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge.
"I knew right away it was going down. It felt like weightlessness, you know, in the vehicle, and I went down," Bernie Toivonen said on CBS News'
The Early Show
. "I went back probably 50 feet to the bottom of the deck. And then I leveled out and stopped about another 40 to 50 feet behind where the deck collapsed."
By midday Thursday, the rescue efforts had turned to recovery efforts.
"This will not be a quick recovery. We're going to take it easy, and we're going to keep people safe," said Fire Chief Jim Clack.
"We ask for patience," said Police Chief Tim Dolan. "This will be a long process."
"My husband was driving and I had my visor down. He saw dust first, and then he saw a car disappear, and that's when started feeling this crunch, just felt like, loud boom! boom! boom! boom!" Jamie Winegar told CBS radio affiliate KTRH in Houston.
Toivonen, who had been driving home from work, helped others on his section of the freeway.
"There really wasn't a lot of time to react to anything. When I came - the vehicle came to a stop, I checked to make sure I was OK and I was so lucky, I didn't get hurt and my vehicle really didn't get hurt either," he told co-anchor Hannah Storm. "It's unbelievable."
Dennis and Jamie Winegar were driving across the Mississippi River, stuck in the late rush-hour traffic, when they felt the bridge beneath them start to shake.
The visitors from Houston were among the survivors of Wednesday's collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis. Their car landed on top of a smaller car.
Jamie Winegar said she suddenly started hearing "boom, boom, boom, and we were just dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping."
She said her nephew yelled, "'It's an earthquake!' and then we realized the bridge was collapsing."
Behind the wheel, Dennis Winegar fought to keep their rented Chrysler 300M under control.
"I slammed on my brakes and saw something in front of me disappear and then my car pointed straight down and we fell." He estimated they dropped about 50 feet.
Jamie Winegar said everyone around them got out of their cars and tried to help others off the bridge. "There were a bunch of people right around there helping everyone. Angels is what I call them."
Among the other vehicles caught on the ruined span as it came to rest was a school bus filled with children on their way back from a day of swimming. Ryan Watkins, one of the children, said the bus bounced twice and stopped, its front door wedged against a concrete traffic barrier. The children fled through the rear door.
"When it was going down, I thought I was going in the water," Gary Babano told CBS News. "It went so fast, but we fell for so long - it was just unbelievable."
Catherine Yankelevich did tumble into the Mississippi River. "Cars started flying and I was falling and saw the water," she said. She climbed out the driver's side window and swam to shore uninjured.
"It seemed like a movie, it was pretty scary," said Yankelevich. "I never expected anything like this to happen here."
Marilyn Franzen was about to drive on the riverside parkway under the bridge.
"As I was coming up to the stop sign, I just saw this tremendous plume of dust," she said on
The Early Show
. "I was just in shock as to what it could be. There's a lot of barges that come through there to get into the locks and go up and down the river. That's the first thing that came to my mind, that something happened to a barge."
Xavier Sose was on the telephone in his apartment facing the bridge.
"I heard a low rumble and I saw two chutes of concrete dust shoot out each side of the bridge. And next thing you know, I hear another rumble, complete silence. And then I just see the bridge completely disappear in front of me," he told co-anchor Julie Chen.
Jacob Reynolds of Minneapolis, who had just returned from a family wedding out of town, was driving downtown and ready to get onto the freeway when he heard that the bridge had collapsed.
He said he's certified for disaster relief by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so he ran over to see if he could help. Emergency crews were already fighting the fires.