A span of emotions

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 18, 2008 - 11:12 AM

For survivors of the bridge collapse, feelings about crossing the new span range from confidence to determination, and - for some - fervent avoidance.

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Bridge survivor, Andy Gannon, talked to the media about being on the 35W bridge when it collapsed. Gannon was hoping to cross the bridge in his own car Wednesday evening to complete the trip he started over a year ago. His request to drive himself was declined.

Photo: Harkness, Kyndell, Star Tribune

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For more than a year, Andy Gannon has lived with the image of the Interstate 35W bridge heaving and tossing cars as it crashed into the Mississippi River and dropped out from under him.

With the 10 lanes of the gleaming new span set to open to regular traffic this morning, Gannon is eager to drive himself over it. He knows in his head that the bridge is safe, but he feels a strong need to physically prove to himself that he can trust it.

"I think if I ever want to be the person I was ... you have to trust things," said Gannon, 39, of Apple Valley. "You can't live your life in fear."

For most commuters, the bridge's opening will mean the return of a relatively breezy flow of traffic, with easier access to downtown Minneapolis and a chance to put last summer's tragedy firmly in the background.

But for survivors it brings a complicated mix of feelings. Like Gannon, some will be quick to force themselves across it, hoping for another step toward closure. Some will be frustrated that life is returning to normal for most commuters, but not for them. Some will never want to go near it again.

"They're going to be all over the map. There are some people who are probably looking forward to crossing the bridge and there are some who you probably couldn't pay to cross the bridge," said Margaret McAbee, director of Survivor Resources, which has been holding weekly meetings for bridge-collapse survivors and families.

"Trauma doesn't have much logic involved with it. ... It's probably the strongest bridge in America ... But for the people who are fearful, again, logic doesn't fit into the picture."

A few survivors asked to walk on the bridge during construction, and those requests were accommodated as late as Wednesday.

For Gannon, waiting a long time to drive across the new span would only allow more fear and anxiety to build in his mind, he said: "I'm adamant about getting it over with. ... The sooner the better."

He tried going Wednesday night, believing he had an arrangement to drive across because he would be out of town today. Construction officials offered to give him a ride but said it was unsafe for him to drive himself while the bridge was still a construction zone. He decided to leave.

Just turning onto the Washington Avenue entrance ramp proved emotional for Gannon, who struggled to speak. "It didn't hit me 'till now," he said, trembling and swallowing hard. "This is the exact route I came."

Driving his car across is another step in a process Gannon has been working through for the past 13 months, trying to keep the collapse from getting the best of him.

Once, stuck in traffic under a downtown building that stretched over a street, he had to keep himself from opening his car door and bolting. He has forced himself onto parking ramps, too.

"You just can't live in fear. It'll consume you," Gannon said. "You have to understand that these structures are safe, and to live your life you have to use them, unless you want to hide in your house."

Degrees of acceptance

Survivor Garrett Ebling said that he is not afraid to cross the bridge but that the opening is proving to be more difficult for him than the one-year anniversary was for other reasons.

"Cars will zip and zoom across, and commuters will be on their merry way," Ebling, 33, of Plymouth, wrote on a blog recently. "For those whose commutes have been altered, getting back to 'the old way' is a godsend. Sometime soon -- and the moment will vary for all -- they will forget and life for them will return to normal. That notion makes me sick to my stomach."

Ebling, still healing physically and emotionally from the collapse, said whenever he goes near the new bridge, he will look at the spot where he fell 100 feet into the river, the spot where an entire family crashed upside down on the river bank, the spots where 13 people died. "I'm going to be thinking about all those things."

Survivor Jean Forster suspects she will react quite differently. Working in a University of Minnesota building on the bridge's southern end, Forster, 59, of St. Paul, a public health professor, said she has been watching the construction of the new span for a year.

She said she's excited to make it part of her commute from St. Paul.

"I am confident that it's a very safe bridge," she said. "I haven't had any trouble going across any other bridges, and this is undoubtedly safer."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, simply the idea of crossing is too much for some survivors.

Survivor thinks site is cursed

Thuy Vo, whose car plunged into the river during the collapse, said she plans to avoid crossing the bridge for a long time -- possibly forever.

She has heard all about the new bridge's safety, she said, and people have told her she's just being paranoid. But in some ways, she said, she feels the whole site is cursed. Crossing the new bridge would only take her back emotionally, she said.

"I don't think I ever want to cross over that bridge. No matter how safe it is, no matter how pretty it is," said Vo, 28, of St. Paul. "I will try to find all the reasons not to go there."

McAbee, of Survivor Resources, said there is no normal reaction against which to measure the bridge collapse.

"It's a place that will always have meaning for this group of people who had the misfortune to be there on the first of August 2007," she said. "Over time, their feelings are likely to change, but each in their own time frame."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

For a live view as traffic flows this morning, go to startribune.com/bridgecam

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