911 calls: Horror after bridge fell

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

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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."

'I'm in the middle of the river'

One of the early 911 calls came from Brian Sturgill, 26, who had just flown into Minneapolis from San Diego 90 minutes earlier on a business trip. Hoping to go to the Twins game, he was trying to find a hotel and was driving over the bridge in his rented Chevy Impala, admiring the Cadillac in the lane next to him, when he felt the bridge shake.

The road broke in front of him and the car fell, its back half smacking into the water. Terrified, Sturgill tried to open the driver's door, but it was jammed shut. Part of the windshield was shattered and he tried to kick out the rest of the glass. But with only old flip-flops on his feet, the glass didn't break. The window in the passenger door wouldn't break either.

The car shifted. Sturgill tried the driver's door again, and it opened. He waded into several feet of water and walked up onto a slab of concrete in the middle of the river, stripping off his polo shirt in case he had to swim.

The Cadillac was on a piece of concrete 15 feet across the water. The driver climbed out, covered with blood and oil. Sturgill grabbed a piece of splintered two-by-four and pushed it over to him, telling him to come over.

Sturgill's back ached. His hands were scraped and bleeding.

That's when he called 911. It was just before 6:12 p.m.

Operator: Minneapolis 911.

Sturgill: Yes, I was on the bridge. It just collapsed.

Operator: OK, are you hurt?

Sturgill: Not bad. I'm in the middle of the river though.

Operator: You're in the middle of the river, are you in a car?

Sturgill: Yeah -- no, I'm out of the car.

Operator: Are you floating in the river then?

Sturgill: No, I'm on like a little island part in the middle. There's a lot of people here too. And I think there could be people trapped in cars is what I'm really worried about.

Operator: Yeah, we have help on the way. Have they gotten there yet?

Sturgill: I haven't seen anyone yet.

Operator: OK, because help is on the way. We have firetrucks, the police, the ambulance. I will let them know. How ... many people are on the island with you?

Sturgill: It's just me and another guy right now but there are separate parts. There's 25 people, at least 25 people here now.

'I just floored it'

The calls continued. A woman broke down as she told he operators what had happened. "Oh my gosh, people are, oh my gosh," she says, crying, according to the transcript.

Two minutes after nearly falling into the river, a driver who just barely made it across called in. "People fell. People fell," the caller says. "The construction workers were running. I just floored it. It was like 'The Dukes of Hazzard.'"

One irate driver called 10 minutes after the bridge collapse to complain about traffic backing up, prompting the 911 operator to hang up.

The calls poured in and, as the operators learned the scale of what had happened, they began cutting people off in mid-sentence, trying to shorten the calls.

The calls continued well past midnight, as people wanted to know more about what had happened or to offer help, said Williams.

Sturgill and the man in the Cadillac, whom he only knew as Omar, were rescued by boat after roughly half an hour on the broken bridge. That night, Sturgill spent a sleepless night at a Minneapolis hotel. The next day, his parents bought a plane ticket so he could get home.

Sturgill didn't go back to work for almost three weeks. He keeps thinking of the cars he saw partly buried in concrete, and how it might have been his had he been just a few feet ahead or behind.

"It's traumatic," he said by phone from San Diego on Friday. "It's one of those things where you lay in bed at night and play it over and over.

"I feel blessed, but it's scary. I feel really terrible to have been a part of this."

Since he returned home, he has talked by phone several times with Omar, and with a girl named Diana who was "covered in blood and grit" when he met her.

At first he called to see if they were all right. But he said he will call them again. They were there, too, and they know what it was like.

mckinney@startribune.com • 612-673-7329 smetan@startribune.com • 612-673-7380

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