First Lady Laura Bush came to Minnesota on a regularly scheduled visit Friday. But it was the detour that left the biggest impressions.
Bush was scheduled to visit a youth conference on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota and to tour a St. Paul magnet school. But the itinerary changed after the 35W bridge collapsed Wednesday. She made a 30-minute stop at the West River Road command site to view the wreckage and thank first responders at the scene. President Bush comes to the site today.
"Our country really, really depends on you to come in. From 9/11 to the hurricanes to this now. Thank you for being prepared and ready to step in when the time comes," she told members of the Red Cross Twin Cites. The group included worker Jay Reeves, credited with running to the scene just feet from the Red Cross headquarters to help children escape a school bus teetering on the rubble.
"I know even though you're trained, its hard. I know its hard for you psychologically to watch and to see the people who are grieving, and I know you grieve with them," she said.
Touring an overlook on West River Road, she was shown the school bus in which 60 children were pulled to safety. The bus has come to symbolize the capricious nature of who survived and who did not.
"Another 10 seconds ahead and the bus would have been in flames," Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Rob Allen told her. "Another 10 seconds behind and it would have been in the water."
Meeting with dignitaries that included Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, the First Lady told them the resiliency and cooperative nature of Minnesotans impressed her during the rescue and cleanup efforts.
She also talked about personal concerns at the White House. Members of her advance team had been on the bridge an hour before the collapse, and members of the Republican National Committee were in town for a meeting.
"If there is anything good to come out of this it's that we are taking a look at other bridges around the country," she said. In the line with police and fire personnel was a person who has become another iconic image of the day: Minneapolis Fire Capt. Shanna Hanson, who strode into in the muddy waters with just a life preserver and a rope securing her to the shore, trying locate possible survivors in shredded vehicles.
"Thank you and God bless you," Bush told the group. Shortly after her tour of the bridge collapse site, Bush addressed the tragedy in the start of her remarks to the Fourth Regional Conference on Helping America's Youth on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. The initiative, led by the First Lady, focuses on such issues as illiteracy, teen violence and drug and alcohol abuse, particularly among boys.
She reminded them not to forget the effect such an event has on children. It may be especially vivid to kids, she said, because of the attention focused on children who were temporarily stranded in a school bus on the fallen bridge.
"Many children here in Minnesota and across the country have also seen these images and heard these stories, so I urge parents and adults to reassure their kids that they can go about their daily routine. They can go about their daily routine, they can take the bus to school, and they can ride home in their cars across a bridge and be safe." In his weekly radio address today, President Bush will also address the collapse.
"In times of tragedy, our hearts ache for those who suffer, yet our hearts are also lifted by acts of courage and compassion," read a radio address text released by the White House.
Staff writer Mary Jane Smetanka contributed to this report; Mark Brunswick * 651-222-1636