Some survivors of the I-35W bridge collapse who were relatively unscathed physically are discovering they bear deep emotional scars. Some are reaching out to each other as they struggle to return to their old routines.
The gray glow of the TV helps distract Amy Lindholm from her memories when she settles onto the overstuffed couch in her living room each night. If she tries to fall asleep in silence and in her bed, the way she used to, the images and sounds of falling down with the Interstate 35W bridge come rushing back: the loud crack of the bridge breaking. The lifeless body she couldn't reach to help. Her own screams. Sleeping on the couch with the TV on feels better. The couch's firmness is good for her aching back. "And I'm closer to the door in case something happens," she says. "Like [if] my apartment goes down or something." Lindholm is one of many survivors of the Aug. 1 bridge collapse who emerged from the rubble without dramatic physical injuries -- spared from what in some cases seemed like sudden and certain death. But now many of them are drifting through their days still haunted by what they felt and saw, still struggling to find solace. Some are also coming together to form a community they couldn't have imagined before that horrifying rush hour when 13 people died.
The bridge, they say, keeps surfacing in their lives. Kimberly Brown avoids parking ramps. Jeff Ringate, back to working bridge construction, questions the stability of the structures. Brent and Chris Olson, who walked away uninjured, have difficulty concentrating on routine tasks. Talking with others who were there helps the most, they say. Some survivors are now part of a group of up to two dozen people who gather on Wednesday nights in St. Paul.
Sitting in a circle in comfortable chairs, group members can understand why Lindholm speeds across bridges or grabs the couch cushions to brace herself when thunder rattles.
Or why another survivor avoids riding down in elevators, escaping the feeling of falling in the pit of the stomach. Or why another squeezes the steering wheel when driving through construction. Or why another, opening the door to let out her dogs, saw a crack in the concrete and visualized the ground falling away.
Most are jittery with the realization that they can't always control what happens to them.
"Some of them are reconnecting with people they met on the bridge or as they were being rescued," said Margaret McAbee, who leads the Wednesday meetings. "I think what we're finding is that each of them were feeling quite isolated because they probably went home without really having any way to reconnect with any of those people."
Life-threatening encounters often bring anxiety, upset stomachs, forgetfulness and a wave of other reactions, experts say. And it's not a sign of strength or weakness.
Some people feel the effects right away. Others may not feel them for months. Some escape entirely.
An unexpected tragedy, such as the bridge collapse, complicates things even more.
"It's certainly something none of us ever expects to have happen to us. And so how do you get yourself around that?" said McAbee, executive director of Survivor Resources, a Twin Cities nonprofit group. "One of the ways to do that is to talk to the other people who were there and to process that and to tell that story to other people who get it."
Said Lindholm: "We're all there and we support each other and listen to everybody and no one's judging nobody and we all have the same anger. Bridges aren't supposed to fall."
A second chance at life
Kimberly Brown no longer parks in the ramp at work.
Brown was riding with her friend to a soccer game, fiddling with her cell phone, when she felt a vibration. She looked up and saw the pavement in front of her rippling.
"Oh, my God!" she screamed, tucking her head into her arms as they plummeted.
They would be crushed, she thought.
The car, a silver Saturn, landed with its front wheels hanging on an edge of broken concrete. Brown crawled out through the driver's-side window, tiptoed onto twisted metal and pulled herself across the hood to reach the stable slab of concrete resting in the river.
On her first day back at work, she parked in a ramp as always and started walking toward her office. But when a car passed, the concrete floor fluttered slightly.