Two days after the 35W bridge memorial opened, someone pried 22 letters off its granite wall.
Construction worker Rob Bailey went to the Mississippi River on Monday evening, as he had every Aug. 1 for the previous three years, to remember his co-worker and friend Greg "Jolly" Jolstad.
He watched as a new memorial to the 35W bridge collapse was unveiled about a quarter-mile upstream from the site of the tragedy.
"I go down there to pray every year at 6:05 p.m.," said Bailey, who had just stepped off the bridge moments before it collapsed.
Two days after making his pilgrimage, he was stunned to hear that the memorial had been vandalized, with 22 stainless steel letters ripped out of a message affixed to the memorial's granite wall.
"How can we deface a public monument?" he asked on Wednesday morning, shortly after the vandalism was discovered. "It pains me that people would honestly do that."
The vandalism took place just two days after the opening of the I-35W Remembrance Garden along West River Parkway. A tall steel fence that had secured the site while it was under construction was removed Monday.
The theft brought statements of outrage from visitors, some of whom looked at the incomplete message Wednesday morning in apparent confusion before figuring out what had happened.
"Disgusting," said Mary Shovein of Eagan, who was on a bike ride with her husband, Mike, when they stopped by.
Mayor R.T. Rybak, who made a noon appearance at the memorial to condemn the vandalism, said, "It's beyond description how wrong this act is, but it does not change the thousands of acts of compassion and support that this community has shown."
The remaining letters were removed Wednesday morning by Mike Sullivan, a project manager from McGough Construction, which built the memorial. He said it didn't make sense to confuse visitors with an incomplete message.
Each letter had been screwed to the granite wall with up to three 3-inch pins. Scratches on the wall made it look like someone used a crowbar to remove the missing letters, he said.
The cost of replacing the missing letters may be covered by insurance, said Paul Miller, the city's project manager for the Remembrance Garden. If not, it will come from money set aside for the memorial's long-term maintenance.
The memorial was paid for with $1.5 million of the $52.4 million settlement from URS Corp., a San Francisco-based engineering firm hired to evaluated the bridge before it collapsed. The firm settled a lawsuit earlier this year brought by some 130 people affected by the tragedy. After design and construction costs, as much as $800,000 of the memorial fund remains, Miller said.
Designed by Minneapolis landscape architect Tom Oslund, the project sits on a patch of river bluff parkland across the street from Gold Medal Park.
The memorial includes a row of 13 vertical steel I-beams, each engraved with the name of someone who died in the collapse and a personal tribute written by relatives.
The names of 171 survivors of the collapse are engraved on a stone wall, which has a sheet of water flowing over it. The wall featured this message -- the one damaged by vandals -- written by survivors of the collapse:
"Our lives are not only defined by what happens, but by how we act in the face of it, not only by what life brings us, but by what we bring to life. Selfless actions and compassion create enduring community out of tragic events."
Two weeks to replace
A spokesman for the maker of the letters, Designer Sign Systems of Blaine, said the company will investigate ways to make them more difficult to remove. Company Vice President Tim Wirtz said his best guess was that someone stole the letters to sell to a metal scrap yard for salvage.
"We're just heartbroken," he said. "Our entire shop took pride in them."
It took two weeks to build the original set of letters, he said, and will take two more to make a replacement set.
"We, along with McGough, are investigating additional ways to secure the letters so that it doesn't happen again," he said.
Police asked that tips about the missing letters go to the property crimes division in the department's First Precinct at 612-673-5701.
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747