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.
It stopped her in her tracks, hand over thumping heart.
Parking ramps. Bridges. Even her office building. Brown questions the stability of everything now.
"I pretty much think about it all the time," she said.
Priorities have changed, too. She finds herself impatient with grousing. When a co-worker complained that nobody was refilling the office coffee pot, she stopped herself from snapping: How about I drop you off a bridge and see how much you care about your coffee pot?
She appreciates life's little pleasures now. Although she still has back and neck pain, she knows she's been granted a second chance at life.
Now, she wonders what to do with it.
"Had fate dealt us a different card, it could have been a lot different for us. I really feel like I can't just take that lightly," Brown said. "There's got to be something that I should get from this."
For now, she has found meaning in spreading the word about a $10 key chain tool called "ResQMe," which is supposed to help people escape cars by shattering side windows and slicing jammed seat belts.
"I feel better just knowing that I have that," she said. "If I have friends in the car, if I have family in the car, you know, and we're in a horrible situation like that, you know, I can do something about it now."
Brent and Chris Olson were among those hurt the least in the collapse. Besides headaches, they have no physical injuries. Their car, a 1997 Jaguar, is tucked back in their garage -- the only repair a new windshield, because they couldn't scrape off all the bright orange paint from the giant "C27" investigators sprayed on the glass.
On their way to a Twins game to celebrate their 38th anniversary, they had just driven onto the bridge when Brent saw sections of it collapse. A giant wave of falling concrete was headed their way. Brent turned to Chris and said, "I love you."
But then everything slowed. Instead of dropping in a whoosh, the road directly in front of them sank slowly. Then a section behind them sank, too. There they were, among a handful of cars on higher pavement, magically unharmed.
Chris, a nurse, wanted to help. There were no serious injuries on that section of the bridge, and they couldn't see the destruction that fell in front of them. They wanted to help with the injured. But by the time they got to the other side of the river -- getting a ride and walking to where the Red Cross was treating people -- medics had flooded the scene.
They made their way home to White Bear Lake, riding with a friend who had made it to the Twins game.
Now, it's hard for them to know what to make of their fortunate fate.
"It's sort of like survivor remorse," Chris said, sitting in their dining room.
"Here we are, you know, our car's just sat up there nice and pretty," her husband said. "People lost their lives ... back injuries. Oh, my word, they're just horrendous. ... We walked off the thing."We don't know why," Chris said. "We don't know why at all."
The collapse is with them all the time, even when they're not specifically thinking about it.
Brent, an accountant, has trouble focusing when he sits down to do payroll. Chris will sometimes walk into the living room to look for something, then forget what she was looking for. Something as innocuous as a car accident on a TV show might bring tears.
"It's a weird feeling," Chris said. "It's almost like you don't have control of your mind completely anymore. Things are just going to pop in."
Screams are 'plain as day'
Construction worker Jeff Ringate of Waconia was getting ready to pour concrete on the bridge when it tumbled beneath him. He grabbed a broom from the pavement and used it to fish people out of the murky water. Images of cars sinking with people in them are seared in his mind. He can still hear screams of people trapped under debris.
"I can hear it just plain as day," Ringate said.
He doesn't even try to fall asleep until about 2 a.m. most nights, and now that he's working again - on light duty because of back and neck injuries - he has to rise early to go work on other bridges.
One assignment, he said, was working on a crumbling bridge over Hwy. 95 near Stillwater.
"The first day I pulled up there I wanted to get in my car and leave. Like you've got to be kidding me," he said. "The thing looked like it was getting ready to fall down."
The construction season for his job will last about another month and then, Ringate said, he hopes to switch to a job that doesn't involve bridges.
Looking for 'new normal'
Lindholm, a medical assistant caught in the collapse, wasn't as emotionally affected as many others that night. She sprang into action, walking around the broken concrete, comforting the injured and pouring bottled water on people's cuts.
The physical and mental pain came later.
"You feel like everything is out to get you," she said. "A car cuts in front of you and it's, 'Oh, God, here we go. I survived the bridge, now I'm going to get it in a car accident.'"
With time, experts say, much of the anxiety will go away. And in some cases, those who have experienced disaster trauma even become better for what they went through.
"They try to experience things a little more sincerely because they realize that life is a fragile process," said Gerard Jacobs, director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota. "The overall struggle is an attempt to reconfigure your life into a new normal."
Some bridge survivors wonder what their new normal will be like, and when it will arrive.
"It's not something you're just going to move past," Ringate said.
"We'll see as time goes on," Brent Olson said, "how much of a ... dividing line this kind of puts in our lives."
Pam Louwagie 612-673-7102
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