Linking more than the bridge

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 26, 2008 - 7:26 AM

A crowd gathered to watch the new 1-35W bridge take shape over the open water, a sight that evoked awe and pride, sorrow and hope.

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Spectators watched as construction continued Sunday on the new I-35 bridge.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Amid the rattle of construction and the zoom of traffic, behind the excited crush of people pressed up against the chain-link fence along the 10th Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis Sunday afternoon, stood a quiet man.

He wasn't one of the curious onlookers who had driven in from outstate, or one of the sweaty joggers or bicyclists who'd stopped to gawk, or one of the spiffy retired engineers proudly explaining to their families what was going on as two 198-ton concrete sections of bridge were hoisted into place on the new Interstate 35W bridge.

The massive segments, the first pieces of the new bridge to extend over water, were slowly, grandly lifted from an anchored barge by a soaring orange crane. They'll be linked with scores of others as the span stretches toward its scheduled completion this fall.

It was a spectacular sight, and nearly everyone said so: "Awesome!" rang out everywhere. Well, almost everywhere.

"My heart is in my throat," said the quiet man, Garrett Ebling, 33, of Plymouth, not really wanting those around him to hear. "So much happened here. My car went down -- right -- over there."

He pointed down into the roiling brown river, where, on Aug. 1, his car plunged off of the falling bridge headlong into the water. Somehow, someone got to him, cut his seat belt, got him to shore. Ebling, who suffered severe injuries, spent two months in the hospital and underwent reconstructive surgery on his face.

Sunday was only the second time he'd been back to the bridge site, he said. He'd been at a Saints game and decided he'd just drive by, see how things looked.

What was it like to be there Sunday?

"I think of those who died," he said, adding that the survivors have become close to one another. "This is a very powerful place."

He expects the new bridge to be one of the safest ever built, but he's not sure he'll use it. "I guess if someone else is driving, I'd go, but no, I wouldn't seek it out," he said.

Ebling will be married on Aug. 3, he said, so on Aug. 1, he'll be pretty busy, but not too busy to think of that day.

Ebling's was but one of the motivations that brought people out to watch Sunday's construction drama.

Kevin Gutknecht, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, stood midpoint in the 10th Avenue Bridge walkway, being peppered with questions, answering them with all the cheerful pride of a new papa.

"Everyone wants to know how they're gonna hold the thing together," he said. And over and over again, he explained how: lots of cables and rods and concrete.

Many of the white-hatted workers standing high on the bridge's lip where the new sections were being attached were "just there watching," Gutknecht said. "Who wouldn't want to watch?"

Indeed.

Linda Olson, who lives in northeast Minneapolis and works in Mendota Heights, has gotten used to taking an alternate route to work since the bridge fell. But she's come down at least four times a week since to see what's happening.

"It's fascinating," she said. "And I've been so impressed by the crowds. They're so interested and curious."

Gerald and Virgene Kanstrup drove two hours from Clara City, Minn., to see the bridge. "It's a nice day and we like free things outside," Virgene said, laughing. Then she grew solemn. "My sister had driven across the old bridge at 5:30 that day, and I couldn't reach her for the longest time."

For all those reasons -- awe at the swift rebuilding and the scene, which so perfectly combines urban and natural beauty, and memories of that terrible day, she said, "This place brings people together."

Ebling said he found it buoying that so many people had gathered. It didn't bother him that the mood was merry.

"I don't tell everyone what happened to me, but if they see the scars and ask, they always tell me where they were when it happened," he said. "Everyone feels some connection to that day and this place, and that's not a bad thing at all."

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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