911 calls: Horror after bridge fell

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY and MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2007 - 11:48 PM

A flurry of 911 calls capture the moments of concern, panic and fear after the I-35W bridge collapse.

Road extension to aid debris removal

A dump truck deposited a load of gravel into the Mississippi River on Friday as workers constructed a causeway at the site of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. The causeway will extend most of the way across the river and will make it easier for heavy equipment to get to the sections of the bridge that are in the water. Downtown Minneapolis is in the background at left.

Photo: Jim Foti, Star Tribune

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The first call was hysterical.

"The bridge collapsed!" a woman shouted over the phone to a 911 operator in Minneapolis. "There are people all over the place!"

And then more people called, each with a piece of an unbelievable tale.

"There are cars in the water."I'm in the middle of the river."They're jack-hammering and all of a sudden the whole bridge just collapsed behind me."

The city of Minneapolis released recordings and transcripts on Friday of the 911 calls that came in a flurry shortly after 6:05 p.m. on Aug. 1 when the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed into a cloud of dust and twisted metal, killing 13 people.

Fraught with emotion, the calls -- 40 in all -- offer a glimpse into the mayhem that followed as witnesses tried to explain what they had seen.

"There's cars flyin' up," says one man. "Send everything you've got!"

The cries for help came from witnesses and survivors, from a riverboat captain upstream of the bridge, from a woman on the 10th Avenue Bridge and from people who had fallen and were stranded on the wreckage.

Some of the callers were hysterical, but not all: A woman caller calmly said "Hi" and then described the location and scene. Another caller compared his high-speed escape off the falling bridge to a scene in "The Dukes of Hazzard."

A woman called from Boston after receiving a call from her disoriented daughter, who had fallen with the bridge. What bridge collapsed? the woman asked. Can you tell me?

The records show that the first call for help arrived at 6:05 p.m., from a woman who didn't know exactly where she was.

"I can see the Gold Medal flour," she says, likely referring to the neon sign above the Mill City Museum.

The operator who answered, one of seven on duty that night in the basement of Minneapolis City Hall, pressed for a location.

"I need a location," she tells the woman, who shouts something incomprehensible. "What's the cross street, ma'am?" the operator persists, unaware that the entire bridge was gone.

A call that came in two seconds later accurately describes the location, and the operator can be overheard saying: "We have a bridge collapse, Maryam."

Maryam Williams was the supervisor that night. Talking to a reporter on Friday, she said it was among the busiest nights of her 19 years on the job.

"For me, when I first heard it, I thought, a bridge can't collapse," she said. She didn't see the bridge ruins until nearly three hours later when she got up from her desk and passed through the supervisor's office, where a small TV was playing.

"Oh my God," she said. "Oh my God."

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