Pols excited by rebuilt bridge forget the lives still shattered

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2008 - 11:29 PM

For those injured in the bridge collapse or those worried about bridge safety, Monday's ceremony rang hollow.

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Bridge collapse survivor Amy Lindholm, at her home in Mounds View in September 18, 2007. Lindholm, who was at Monday’s ceremony, is wearing a back brace and has been fired from her job.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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I got worried when I didn't see any ambulances at Monday's big bridge media event, at which every elected official in Minnesota who could stand upright was on hand to announce that the new Interstate 35W bridge will open Thursday. Thankfully, no elbows were dislocated by our self-congratulating politicians.

They are expert at patting themselves on the back.

A simple press release, on state stationery, would have sufficed: "New Bridge to Open Thursday." Instead, we got a shameful media hog pile, with six members of Congress, two U.S. senators, the mayor of Minneapolis, scads of legislators, aldermen and other hangers-on, praising themselves for their teamwork, their leadership, their partnership, blah, blah, blah. They did their jobs. They gave themselves high marks.

Stop the presses.

A few of them had to twist themselves into pretzels to take full part in the group hug.

Take U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, please. A year ago, after the old bridge fell, killing 13 Minnesotans and shattering the lives of many more, Peters rejected every attempt to raise spending on infrastructure and denied that we even have an infrastructure crisis. Our infrastructure is getting better, she said, while cars were still in the Mississippi. It just isn't "performing" well.

Right. The space shuttle Challenger was getting better, too. It just didn't perform well.

Mary Peters should not be allowed within 10 miles of the bridge site. But there she was Monday to take a bow, bring greetings from George Bush and bedeck herself with glory.

"It shouldn't take a tragedy to build a bridge this fast," she said. But it wasn't a tragedy that built the new bridge.

It was $250 million in federal funds, served up quickly by Congress without the anti-tax crowd's penny-pinching, which led to engineers dragging chains across the old bridge to gauge its soundness by listening for thunks instead of using ground penetrating radar. Amazing how fast the penny-pinchers started spending beaucoup bucks to shift attention after the bridge fell.

Peters, like all of Monday's speakers, did mention the victims. "These lanes will forever be sacred," she said, stretching to tie the lives lost to the fresh concrete of the new bridge.

As she spoke, one of the people Peters mentioned -- those whose suffering made the new lanes sacred -- stood just 30 feet away, sobbing.

Amy Lindholm was not there to celebrate. She was there in a back brace.

Lindholm, 33, was among a handful of bridge survivors who came to Monday's high-five party, which included the unveiling of the design for a 35W bridge "Remembrance Garden" -- a Stonehenge-like circle of grim steel girders at the base of the grassy knoll next to the Guthrie.

To some, the unveiling of a memorial seemed a little off-key in the middle of an orgy of congratulations. Amy Lindholm, who does not need a garden to remember, did not clap when she saw the plan.

She was on the bridge when it fell and, though dazed, tried to help other victims, some of whom did not make it. Still traumatized, she recently was fired from her job as a medical assistant after undergoing spinal surgery to repair her injuries and failing to return to work fast enough to suit her employer. The politicians' praise for the fast-track construction of the new bridge was hard to take for a single mother from Mounds View still trying to rebuild her life.

"This is all just a bunch of publicity," she was saying, shifting her weight from side to side, trying to get comfortable with a hard plastic brace around her midsection to immobilize her spine, which has five bolts in it. "Now it's like, 'The new bridge is built. We don't need you any more. It's done.'"

Lindholm, who has two young daughters, stood at the edge of the crowd, watching the politicians' expressions change from somber (let us remember, you know, the victims) to big smiles (we built this sucker in record time!).

It was hard for her to take.

At one point, one of the speakers a tad too cheerfully invited anyone "who lost somebody" to raise their hand and come forward. Lindholm raised her hand but stayed put. No one saw her anyway.

"So many lives have been totally ruined," Lindholm said. "I don't want to be forgotten."

Peters, the transportation czar who believes our infrastructure is improving, perhaps through the efforts of helpful bridge fairies, said people should "never have to worry, never have to wonder" about the safety of bridges

For Minnesotans who have worried since Aug. 1, 2007, every time they put the kids in the back and try to figure out how to get somewhere without crossing a bridge that is closed or under repair or sagging or that has a rating lower than the president's, a question comes to mind.

What country do these people live in?

ncoleman@startribune.com • 612-673-4400

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