One year after the collapse, a lockmaster, a social worker and the last guy off the I-35W bridge reflect on how it affected us all.
After Thuy Vo of St. Paul struggled out of her submerged car, she sat on a slab of concrete in the middle of the river and waited for rescue last Aug. 1. Behind her on the wreckage was Sgt. E.T. Nelson of the Minneapolis police, who crawled onto unstable rubble to help survivors minutes after the collapse.
As lockmaster at the Lower St. Anthony Falls dam, Timothy Meers has been down on the Mississippi for 33 years -- watching the river, and time, flow past.
Every day, he manages the currents underneath the fast-climbing concrete arches of the 10-lane Interstate 35W bridge. He perches just upstream from where the twisted and rusted steel skeleton of the old 35W bridge rests in a weedy patch off West River Parkway. A year after the unimaginable happened, a year after the bridge buckled and dropped into the river, Meers still can't believe three things:
How his take-it-for-granted confidence in the safety of bridges crumbled as quickly as the I-35W span. How fast its $234 million replacement rose to near completion. And that it's been a year since the terms "fracture critical" and "gusset plates" barged their way into the public lexicon.
"It doesn't seem like a whole year has passed," Meers said. "It's gone by so fast."
It almost seems too fast. As civic leaders, mourners and survivors gather today to commemorate the anniversary, Marsha Porter has caught herself falling into a trap she hopes others avoid.
"I was telling myself: 'It's been a year now, I have to set all this stuff behind me. It needs to be done.' "
A volunteer social worker with the Red Cross, Porter has been working with 32 children, age 5 to 12, from the Waite House's yellow school bus that landed beside a Taystee Bread truck last Aug. 1. The truck's cab burst into flames, killing driver Paul Eickstadt, one of 13 lives lost.
"For some people, this will take much longer than a year," Porter said. "People have different timetables, and some are just starting to talk about it."
During art therapy sessions, Porter said one lesson emerged.
"The kids learned that anything can happen to anybody at anytime," she said. "As parents, we hate to see children lose their innocence so soon, but they will gain strength from learning not to take things for granted."
Chuck Hoffman learned that lesson all too well in his rear view mirror. His green 1999 Subaru Forester was just ahead of the school bus. His was the last southbound vehicle to make it across the bridge unscathed.
"I couldn't imagine concrete could flex like that," said the 61-year-old computer technician from New Brighton. "I felt like I was in a canoe on a choppy lake, it was rippling that bad."
If he had slowed down even briefly on his way downtown, he would have been with the bus.
"You never know when your time is up, and it's made me more appreciative of family and friends and less worried about material things," Hoffman said. "The whole thing was a wake-up call that our infrastructure needs more attention."
Minnesota has closed a half-dozen bridges since Aug. 1 for safety concerns, more than the rest of the country combined. Legislators overrode Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto to give bridges and roads their biggest revenue boost in 20 years. But Saturday, 1,200 pounds of concrete chunks fell from the Maryland Avenue overpass, hitting a car hood and windshield on I-35E north of downtown St. Paul.
"They inspected all the bridges," Hoffman said. "But I guess they didn't see that one coming. Nobody really knows how long these bridges are going to last."
Still jittery, Meers, the lockmaster, and Porter, the social worker, will watch the memorial events today at the Basilica of St. Mary and, later, down by the river. Out of respect, workers will halt construction today on the bridge. The Colorado contractor will reap more than $20 million in bonuses if the bridge is completed by Sept. 15.
Meers will remember the dead, who included a pregnant Somali mother and her and 20-month-old daughter. Other victims were Cambodian, Winnebago, Greek Orthodox. They came from Blaine, Shoreview, Rosemount.
"There was such a kaleidoscope of people reflecting the good mix of our population," Meers said.
Porter said today's memorial events mark a key step in the healing, but not the end. As devastating as the tragedy has been for the families of the dead and the 145 injured, Porter says it's important for everyone to acknowledge the collective mental jolt suffered a year ago.
"Whether you had anyone on the bridge or not, this was a big deal and a community disaster," the social worker said. "A bridge is a symbolic part of our sense of community, and replaying the images of such massive visual destruction this week can be incredibly disruptive, upsetting and unsettling."
Her one hope: "As we see all these images one year later, hopefully we are standing in a stronger, more grounded place."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767