Four years after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, hundreds of people gathered Monday along the riverfront to dedicate a memorial to those who were on the bridge.

For the families and friends of the 13 people who died, the pain and grief is still raw. Their voices cracked. Tears fell. Lips quivered as they talked about their wives and husbands, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who died. For those who survived the collapse, their nightmares are vivid. It's a memory of a summer day they would rather not remember.

But on Monday, they joined hands with a community that hasn't forgotten what one attorney called "the greatest man-made catastrophe our state has ever seen."

"I know I can come back here to talk to her once in a while," said Carole Joy Blackhawk, whose youngest daughter, Julia Blackhawk, died when the bridge collapsed at 6:05 p.m. Aug. 1, 2007. "And I can come here to cry."

The memorial includes a row of 13 vertical steel I-beams, each one engraved with the name of a victim and a personal tribute written by the victim's relatives. At night, the columns are illuminated in blue. The names of 171 survivors of the collapse are engraved on a stone wall, a sheet of water flowing over it.

Designed by Minneapolis landscape architect Tom Oslund, the project sits on a patch of river bluff parkland across the street from Gold Medal Park, about a quarter mile upstream from the new I-35W bridge.

It stretches 81 feet along the sidewalk and bike path alongside W. River Parkway -- the distance signifying the 8/1 date when the bridge collapsed into the river, a moment frozen in time, said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

"A moment of horror," he said. "People who were strangers, who inhabited common ground, suddenly become part of something tragic and even part of something heroic.

"This will be a place where we will have memories of people who will not be with us anymore. This will be a place where we bring thoughts of loss and grief. This will be a place where we will talk about what happens as we move on."

For Mark Holmes, whose son Patrick died that day, the memorial will serve as a reminder "that this should never happen again."

But for now, it's not a place where Holmes will find comfort or solace. At least not yet.

"It took two years before I could even visit the grave," he said. "We're a quiet family. And we don't need a memorial to keep his memory alive. But we appreciate it."

A color guard began the somber dedication ceremony that paid tribute to the victims of the collapse and to those who came to their rescue. Prayers, songs and speeches followed.

Gov. Mark Dayton reminded everyone that the people who fell with the bridge were coming home from work and heading off to classes. They were going to church. They were innocent people who assumed that the infrastructure that was built was going to take them safely to the other side of the river, he said.

But in one of those "unspeakable, unfathomable, why-God moments," they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said.

"There's nothing we can do to bring them back," Dayton said. "But this memorial is a fitting tribute to them."

Then, one by one, the family and friends of those who died spoke about the lives lost. Others read the names of those who survived. While some wiped tears from their eyes, children scrambled among the 13 columns and held their hands against the stone fountain. The rush of traffic and sirens sounded in the background.

The memorial was a long time coming, said Linnell Sathers, who lost her son, Scott Sathers.

"There were times it didn't feel like it was going to be built," she said. "Each year that went by, it felt like it may never happen. This is a culmination of a lot of work."

The memorial was backed by $1.5 million from a $52.4 million court settlement victims received last year.

For those who walk, run and bike along the river path in front of the memorial, it will be a reminder of a day in the city's history. It's a reminder of a community that came together, Sathers said.

But for her, it's not about closure. The pain of loss doesn't go away.

"I'm reminded every time I turn the page on a calendar and see the first of the month," she said. "The pain is always there."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788