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Continued: Two years after the bridge fell, let's resist urge to just 'move on'

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 1, 2009 - 10:03 PM

Alison Howland and Nancy Hovanes leaned forward on the railing of the Stone Arch Bridge at just past 6 p.m. Saturday and studied the new Interstate 35W bridge. They came, Howland said, "to honor the people who were affected by this major event in Minneapolis history."

Until another family walked up a few minutes later, the women who witnessed from their nearby condominiums the Aug. 1, 2007, bridge collapse that killed 13 people, were the only ones.

"Tragedy affects people differently," Howland surmised.

Hovanes had a different take. "Americans disassociate themselves from pain so quickly."

Paula Coulter and her family had planned a small, informal gathering to mark the anniversary, probably with her two sisters. Coulter, her husband, Brad, and their daughters, Brianna and Brandi, were headed to dinner with her sisters on Aug. 1 two years ago when their minivan flipped in midair and crashed upside-down in the bridge wreckage.

"We'll probably be in the area [of the bridge collapse]," she said Friday. They were considering taking their first drive over the new bridge, too.

As tough as that sounds, Friday may have been tougher. Coulter was at her doctor's office -- a place she visits so often her doctor joked she deserved an honorary medical degree. Still plagued by pain, she was getting a CAT scan to determine the source. Now that the two-year mark has passed, Coulter is forced to face a tough truth. "I've learned that your body will work on its natural recovery within two years," said Coulter, a former runner. "While I will certainly not stop working on what I have to do, it's not going to get much better."

She knows there are people she can still call on for support, but it's harder to reach out now. People, she understands, need to move on.

That's likely why Gov. Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak kept Saturday's remembrance low-key. So low-key, in fact, that it was hard to find clues that it was a different sort of day at all.

Excuse me, I asked two women carrying beautiful bouquets of flowers near the Stone Arch Bridge. Are you heading toward the site? No, they said. Just going back to their car after shopping at an outdoor market. "There was a wine-tasting, too," one of them noted happily.

I understand the need to move forward. I just think we tend to force it unnaturally.

My introduction to grief came when my mother became a widow 20 years ago. The first year was hell, she told me. The second year was worse. That's when people begin to pull away. It's when the numbness subsides and reality comes into sharp focus.

Sometimes, that's when people need us more than ever.

"Everyone on that bridge that day left a part of themselves there," said Margaret McAbee, executive director of Survivor Resources (www.survivorresources.org) a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that serves families facing homicides, suicides and accidental deaths. "They've all become someone different because of that experience."

She still sees some bridge survivors a few times a month. Many are young people who feel safe enough to verbalize feelings that are both understandable and heart-breaking.

"I've heard some say they wish they could trade places with those who didn't make it, because the pain is so much. It's the kind of pain that doesn't leave you alone."

They know they're lucky, really, she adds, "but it's interesting that some of the injured kind of wished they'd be taken. They have very, very severe injuries, much more than the average person recognizes."

So when some in our community suggest that it's time to "move on," that the wreckage of a failed bridge strewn across Bohemian Flats parkland, for example, is an "eyesore" for those who travel across the river, I say wait. I say it's OK, important even, that we continue to be reminded.

What more powerful memorial could we build than that which already exists? Twisted steel debris is a mighty metaphor, not just for those our community lost, but for the 30 victims McAbee counts whose backs were broken, unlikely to ever heal completely.

For them, we can feel uneasy a bit longer.

It's fine to shift the annual observance to private gatherings as the years pass. That means, though, that those of us who were not on the bridge that day must work harder to find and reach out to those who were. Every year for a long, long time. There is magnificence in the human capacity to heal. But it's not a race.

Coulter's ninth surgery is scheduled for later this month. Her 10th will follow soon after. She's so proud of her girls, both of whom worked all summer and will return to school in the fall. Brad is working, too. Most days, she said, they live "as though now we have this hurdle."

She's coming to grips with the fact that it's a hurdle she may never fully clear. "And that," she said, "is a hard thing to accept."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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