Survivors may get to keep a piece of fallen bridge

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2013 - 5:37 AM

State transportation officials are working on a plan to allow survivors and other groups to have memorial pieces of the Interstate 35W bridge before the steel is sold for scrap.

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Pieces of battered steel from the fallen Interstate 35W bridge may end up as memorials in the homes of collapse survivors and a solemn reminder for graduating engineering students.

Now that the state's legal battle over the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse is over, the estimated 9 million pounds of steel wreckage that had been sitting mostly untouched is slated to be sold for scrap. But Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said several groups approached the state about obtaining pieces of the structure before that happens.

"This was a historic event. There are people and organizations who would like to have some of that steel," Gutknecht said. "We certainly do want to try to honor those requests -- however, the material is state property so we need to make sure that we're doing everything according to law and by the book."

About 25 to 30 survivors of the bridge's collapse into the Mississippi River would like to have pieces of the structure in various sizes, said survivor Brent Olson, who has been organizing requests on behalf of others who were on the bridge.

The pieces represent deep emotional scars for many who lost loved ones or whose vehicles were involved in the collapse. Thirteen people were killed and 145 were injured. Some would like to have a piece to put on a shelf, Olson said. Others want bigger pieces to set on their floors or in memorial gardens. One mentioned an idea to exact revenge on a piece of the bridge by piercing it with bullet holes, Olson said.

Olson said he would like a flat piece big enough to mount a picture of the bridge and bolt it to his wall. He doesn't need to be reminded of the collapse, he said, because he still thinks of it in some way every day.

"I guess how one person put it: The bridge has taken so much from us ... I want to get a little piece of it back."

Survivor Paula Coulter, who sustained severe injuries in the collapse while in a minivan with her husband and two daughters, said she's interested in getting a piece to add as a sculpture to her landscaping. Her daughters would also like sizable pieces.

"It represents a life-changing event that happened in our lives," Coulter said.

Survivor Lindsay Walz, who pushed her way out of her sunken car, said she's not sure if she'll end up with a piece of the structure; she already has what she believes is a bridge bolt that she found. But it hurts her to imagine the entire bridge being scrapped and vanishing while she and other survivors will carry the burden of the collapse with them forever, she said.

"I was just really conflicted about wanting [the bridge pieces] to exist in the world," she said. "Wanting it to be a reminder to someone ... anyone."

At the University of St. Thomas, engineering students first thought about getting a piece of the structure several years ago to use as part of a ceremony inducting them into the Order of the Engineer.

Graduating students get a ring to wear to remind them of their professional responsibilities, said Don Weinkauf, dean of the university's School of Engineering. A piece of the bridge would be incorporated into a shelf or podium from which students would pick up their rings during the ceremony, he said.

"I think that this will be a very powerful thing for the students to think about when they're accepting their rings," Weinkauf said. "The things that they design and create will touch people's lives, and I think that that's exactly what this would convey."

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the bridge fell largely because of a design flaw: Gusset plates holding parts of it together were half as thick as they should have been, though excessive weight from a road project also was cited.

The collapse set off a flurry of legal action. An engineering firm, a construction company doing work on the bridge when it collapsed and a firm that had inspected the bridge paid the state. Two of those companies paid settlements directly to victims, in addition to the Legislature setting up a special fund for victims.

Getting pieces of the bridge to survivors and others is not a simple thing, though. MnDOT officials want to make sure bridge pieces do not end up on eBay or Craigslist. They also want to make sure people aren't exposed to lead-based paint used on the bridge during its 40-year lifespan.

Some pieces are now being stored in a MnDOT facility in Oakdale, though most sit snow-covered on land just off Interstate 94 in Afton, Gutknecht said. There is no timeline set for recycling the material.

Gutknecht said MnDOT may be legally obligated to sell scrap materials and put the money back into the state budget. He said he is uncertain if there would be any charge for pieces used as memorials.

"We probably won't do much with this until the snow is gone," Gutknecht said. "There are a lot of little details that need to be worked out before we can actually do this. ... We should have a plan pretty soon."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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