01 August 2011

Home, heartbreak, and the Minneapolis 35W bridge collapse

Sometimes the greatest thrill of travel is how it puts your home into fresh perspective, how you return to a familiar yet newly, oddly foreign place. I could never be one of those travel writers without a fixed address, without a specific place called home. For me, for now, home is Minneapolis--it's where I feel grounded, it's my own internal True North.

If there's one specific location here in Mill City that tugs at my soul in some deeper way and has that resonance of this-is-who-I-am-this-is-where-I-belong, it's the Mississippi riverfront. It didn't always have that effect--for the longest time, I thought of the Mississippi as not much more than a glorified cesspool. But then, four years and two months ago, I moved to an apartment four blocks away.

And then, two months later--four years ago today--something happened on the river. The Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the water. Thirteen people died.

I didn't see the collapse take place, but I saw its aftermath. It's seared into my mind. This is what I wrote about it that night:


The Bridge . . .

I cross the Mississippi twice each day as I commute to and from work, and Old Man River lost his mystique for me long ago. For me, and most people in Minneapolis, the water is far more likely to spawn winces from the reek of chemicals than awe over its legend. Mostly, though, we don't even think about it at all — it's just there, a passive obstacle pretty much devoid of meaning. We have a lot of bridges over the Mississippi, and crossing them is typically no more spirit-moving than driving on any other street, especially in this summer of drought, when the waters are muddy and lethargic.

But now we have one less bridge, and no one here in River City can think about much else today.

I’m safe. My friends, co-workers, and relatives are safe, as far as I know. But I’ve already heard too many stories of close calls, and once my mind starts, inevitably, to wander down the path of “what if,” it’s impossible to stop. What if I’d had the day off, as I was supposed to before a big project came up? My father wouldn’t have given me a ride home, so during rush hour, he would have taken his usual route and passed directly under the . . .

But so far, I’ve always let that ellipsis take over at the last minute — completing those thoughts is pointless and terrifying.

When I got home today, I was feeling so beat and lethargic on this hot day that I cranked up the AC and collapsed in bed. When I woke up from my nap and went online for a second and checked the local news, I saw the headline: BREAKING NEWS . . .

The bridge had been down for about forty minutes. I went outside and saw a flock of helicopters hovering over the river. A plume of smoke in the distance. An chorus of sirens filled the air, relentless and haunting. I walked over to the Stone Arch Bridge, the next bridge upstream from 35W, along with thousands of other pedestrians. We were all thinking and muttering and sharing those same trailing-off observations: It could have been me, it could have been my friend, it could have been my brother, it could have been, it could have been, it could have been . . .

What struck me, though, was that no one seemed to realized that for other people, it was. They were there, wrong place, wrong time. And now some of them are dead. The mood on the Stone Arch Bridge was somber, but not distraught or anguished — there were many vacant eyes, but none welling with tears. From our vantage point, we could see twisted metal and accordioned concrete, but no cars or people — we understood the collapse, but not the reality of the human toll.

Everyone was taking photos with their cell phones, though phone service was pretty much out. (This, actually, had been my first clue that something terrible had happened — in our modern age, a phone screen that has ample reception bars but an ominous “network busy” screen is a sign that something is seriously amiss.) Those who could get through were blabbing away to their friends: "Yeah, I'm on the Stone Arch Bridge, but if I hadn't missed my exit, I might have been . . ." 

I made my way to the University Avenue overpass above the freeway, the closest vantage point to the collapsed bridge. Here, there was a different mood. You could see the cars, the trucks . . . and the school bus, leaning against the side of the bridge on a section that was angled toward the river. I later learned that everyone got out safely, but at that moment, none of us knew; we could only speculate and hope. We were closer to the scene than anyone watching on TV at home, and yet we were less aware of what had happened or what was happening. Rumors and hypotheses flowed through the crowd, but facts were elusive; all we could do was exchange helpless glances and wonder if . . . 

As I headed home, hoping to beat the thunderstorm that was rolling in, I saw more emergency vehicles than should ever be in one place. The parking lot outside one apartment building had been turned into a staging ground for a long line of ambulances from seemingly every hospital in the Twin Cities. Search-and-rescue boats fought their way through traffic, trying to get to the riverfront. And everywhere,everywhere, fire trucks. From Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Vadnais Heights, Inver Grove Heights, Maplewood, all over. Police from Roseville were directing traffic. In spite of the chaos, it was all astonishingly orderly — all of the emergency workers seemed to know exactly what they were doing; it was a model of teamwork and efficiency.

It’s so tempting to talk about how the waterway that was the lifeblood of Minneapolis is now a scar, or how the dark clouds that filled the sky after the collapse were some signal from on high of mourning or of looming apocalypse. But for me, metaphor loses some of its impact when you see something so jarring, so unexpected, so awful — the hard reality of mangled concrete and burning cars and a yellow school bus seeming to dangle on the precipice makes life seem too stark, too real. I don’t need clouds to tell me the gravity of the situation.

Because for some people, this wasn’t just “That was almost me, if only . . .”


The silver lining was the community's instant response. People who were passing by on bikes, on foot, in cars, in boats all rushed in immediately to help. No one ran away; everyone ran in.

The Minnesota Twins--who at the time played in the Metrodome, half a mile away from the bridge--had a game an hour after the bridge collapse, and decided not to cancel because it would mean sending 25,000 people back out onto the streets, impeding the rescue effort. So they made an announcement and said here's what's happened, but we're asking you to stay here while we play the game. The headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the next day read, "Twins Help By Playing."

For my part, my neighbor and I agreed that we had to do something, but didn't know what and didn't want to get in the way. So we got cases of water and Gatorade and passed the bottles out to rescue workers and the traffic control officers and the random people who were doing the real work on this hot day. It felt like the least we could do--make sure they had something to drink and a thank-you for all they were doing, before we disappeared back into the night, letting them do their jobs. And we went home and tried to sleep.




More coverage:
For the complete story, here's the Star Tribune's multimedia package on the collapse from a couple of years later. Note: If you're from the Twin Cities and/or this is at all painful for you, you should immediately click "skip intro" when you follow that link. A video of the actual collapse starts playing right away, and it's more than a bit of a trigger of memories and anguish. I say that not to sound dramatic but because when I opened the link just now, that anguish really did come back in an unexpected rush as I impulsively and very suddenly found myself yelling and then bawling.

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