The first day of August 2007 was a beautiful summer Wednesday in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. I had just turned off the television news to read the Star Tribune newspaper at about 6pm. The phone rang, I answered and heard, “Praise the Lord you are home,” it was my parents. What? My dad said that a bridge had fallen into the river and that I should turn on the tv. I obliged and nearly swooned. The conversation ended because I had to make contact with my friends. After numerous frantic calls, I eased my soul that they were all accounted for and fine. I connected with Allie as she walked into her home. She was going to drive over the 35W bridge that night but due to the slow traffic she took another bridge. That decision may have saved her life. Lots of people called or emailed me to make certain that I was okay.
The 35W interstate bridge had spanned the Mississippi River for many years. I knew this bridge. A good friend of mine parked his car under the structure while we attended college at the University of Minnesota during the 1980s. I remember one journey to his car when we gasped as a chunk of cement smashed the hood of another student’s auto. There were some spots under the deck where no one parked because the cement was always crumbling. During the early 2000s, I worked in a building near the bridge for a couple years and spent many hours gazing at its landscape. Like many others, I traveled across it hundreds of times.
It was shocking but not a surprise that the bridge fell. The month before it plunged into the river I had driven across the bridge and nearly threw up. I had a horrible feeling and I decided not to drive on it again. I would hop off 35W and drive over the 10th Avenue Bridge (which is a few blocks to the east) and then get back onto 35W, just to avoid the bridge. I have learned to listen to my intuition. I told my friends to avoid the bridge but they scoffed at me.
An acquaintance of mine, Daniel, was a few cars away from being on the bridge that night. Traffic was slowed to a crawl when suddenly it stopped and dust rose up in front of his car. He rolled down his window when someone came running by screaming that they needed to get out of there. He thought it was a major accident. He managed to turn his car around and depart via an entrance ramp. That is when he saw that the bridge was gone. He entered a state of fugue and drove home. He moved out of his shock a few hours later and realized that he was nearly a victim. Daniel didn’t talk about this incident until last year. He knew that I spent many days at the site but he never discussed his experience. If he had left work a few minutes earlier, he may have joined the list of victims or survivors.
Thirteen people died that night, dozens were seriously injured, multitudes were harmed in a minor way and a few people didn’t get physically hurt at all (for a total of almost 150). Many have suffered from the psychological impact of the awful event. They were the people directly affected by the failure of the bridge structure. So many near misses, such as a busload of kids that could have plunged into the river or a paddleboat loaded with passengers that could have been under the bridge. It could have been so much worse but it’s a disaster for the people who died and survived. Every disaster has ripple effects to the family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and other people that the victim/survivor knows. Responders (professional, volunteer and spontaneous) are deeply affected by what they encounter, too. Even people with no direct connection to the victims or survivors can feel empathy and compassion.
Remember them all. www.minneapolisfoundation.org/35WremembranceGarden will be opening soon about a half mile upstream of the site.