This is Part II of the topic, please read “The Evening the Bridge Fell,” since it recounts the night of August 1, 2007.
The Interstate 35W bridge was literally a block east of the American Red Cross, Minneapolis Area Chapter’s office. I have been a Red Cross Disaster volunteer for over ten years (www.redcrossmn.org). A trained volunteer never self-deploys, aka don’t just show up on the scene. If you aren’t needed, you just get in the way. Plus, the office was in the disaster response zone (generally a block or two surrounding a disaster site) so I could not just drive over. After I got in touch with my friends, I tried contacting the Red Cross but the phone lines were jammed due to too many calls. I wanted to help but I knew enough to remain at home.
Eventually, I spoke with Disaster Services personnel and was scheduled to assist. My first shift was a couple days after the bridge fell. I was stalled at the perimeter because First Lady Laura Bush was visiting and security was tight. After she and her entourage departed, I made my way to the Red Cross office. The set up was quite unusual for a disaster. The first floor of the Red Cross building had been converted into a feeding center for responders and the Red Cross Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was operating out of the building. During a “typical” disaster, the EOC and feeding centers are not on Red Cross property. It causes logistical challenges and interferes with the work of the regular staff (volunteers and employees) that doesn’t focus on disaster. Prepare yourself, others and pets for disaster today www.redcross.org and www.ready.gov have details.
The parking lot of the next-door building was transformed into the Incident Command Center. The Minneapolis Police were in charge but worked in cooperation with the MN Department of Transportation, MN State Patrol, Hennepin County Sheriff's Department, and other city, county and state officials. Federal level response teams from the Transportation Safety Administration, Pollution Control Agency, FBI, Homeland Security, and other agencies were present. Hundreds of professional people involved. If you’d like to learn more about the Incident Command System, you can take free on-line courses at www.training.fema.gov/IS for independent study classes.
Thankfully, my boss at the time let me use vacation time. I had to go into the office every other day to respond to correspondence, email and voicemail but it was a slow couple weeks and nothing dire was occurring. She did question my loyalty; did I care more about work or the disaster? What a question. Of course work was number one but if I could fit in responding to a disaster it would boost my morale. Lots of people take time off to tend to sick spouses or kids, I have neither, so I help at disasters. I shouldn’t be discriminated against because I don’t have a hubby or children.
Due to confidentiality I shall not discuss the people I helped directly. It would be rude and mean to write about their challenges. The nature of disaster is harsh. Once the shock begins to ebb the fear-anger sets in and every person reacts differently. Some people turn their pain inward and others outward. I’ve seen people get sick or else laugh. It is like the grief process, you have to work through the stages and everybody goes at a different rate. I was glad that I could help the survivors and the families of the victims during the first weeks after the tragedy.
I did get close to the bridge and it was unsettling to see the huge steel girders twisted like paper clips. Three dimensions with smell and sound (the structure would rumble a bit as it settled) cannot compare with a pale two-dimensional image from television. The bridge deck fell more than 100 feet (five stories). It must have been utterly terrifying to experience or watch it occur. I continue to be unnerved viewing the videotape. It is amazing that more people did not die or get worse injuries. Wikipedia provides a good overview of this awful event.
Disasters are local but each one reaches around the world.