Jessie Shelton smiled a week after surviving the I-35W bridge collapse. Shelton has no memory of her fall or rescue.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Jessie Shelton smiled a week after surviving the I-35W bridge collapse. Shelton has no memory of her fall or rescue.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Bridge took heavy toll, but not on her dreams

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • August 9, 2007 - 11:21 PM

Jessie Shelton had been home only a few minutes when she spotted the white dress hanging in the hall closet. She smiled wistfully and touched the fabric.

"This is my costume from the show," she said.

The one she would have been wearing a week ago Wednesday, if she hadn't gone down with the bridge.

Shelton, 18, who had been appearing at the Children's Theatre production of "Company," was one of the first survivors to arrive at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale after the I-35W bridge disaster on Aug. 1. On Thursday, she was the last to leave, wearing a body brace, but with her spirit and dreams intact.

Jessie, who broke four vertebrae in her back, is moving a little more slowly now. But the young actress, who starred as Pippi Longstocking at the Children's Theatre last year, was relishing all the little things -- a shower, French toast, and the chance to go home and see her friends.

"We were so lucky," said her mother, Joanna Shelton of Minneapolis.

A June graduate of St. Louis Park High School, Jessie had been planning to enroll in a prestigious musical-theater program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh this fall. Now, it looks as though she'll have to wait a year as she heals from her injuries.

But, she says evenly, "there's nothing I can do about it." So she plans to make the best of her time. Maybe she'll travel, or take up painting, or catch up on her reading, she says.

"She's a glass half-full kind of kid," said her mother, a professional violinist.

Jessie had been working at her summer job on Aug. 1, along with her brother, Matthew, 21, and several other cast members, at the Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository in Minneapolis. But the others left early that day. Jessie alone stayed until closing time, around 6 p.m., and then left in her Honda Civic for the Children's Theatre.

By the time her parents heard about the bridge collapse, they assumed that Jessie was safely at the theater. Her father, Jerry Shelton, a school music director, was to play trumpet in the Children's Theatre orchestra that night. At one point, he reassured a friend that "everybody's fine."

But when he arrived at the theater, Jessie wasn't there. "I kept looking for her," he said, "to come over the rise near the Institute of Arts."

Around 7:30, he said, the play's director rushed out to say that Jessie had been found -- at the emergency room at North Memorial.

The show was cancelled.

Meanwhile, a hospital chaplain called Jessie's mother. When she heard that Jessie was able to give them the phone number, and was wiggling her toes, "that's when I started breathing again," said Joanna Shelton.

Jessie doesn't remember exactly what happened. When the bridge started to shake, she felt her car roll backward. "I blacked out and woke up in the ICU [intensive care unit]," she said.

She had fractured four bones in her back; the most serious one between her shoulder blades, according to Dr. Mark Ahrendt, one of the trauma surgeons. It's the kind of injury, known as a compression fracture, that happens when someone falls off a roof and lands on their feet: the impact travels right up the back.

Officially, she was listed in serious condition. But in the days since, she's begun physical therapy and has started walking again, fighting her way through pain and nausea. At one point, Jessie referred to the accident as "an adventure."

That might have been the morphine talking, her mother says.

She may still need surgery on one of the fractured vertebrae, Ahrendt said. And she'll have to wear a neck brace for three months.

"At this point, everyone's hopeful that she's going to make a full recovery," he said. "I think she's very lucky that her spinal cord wasn't damaged."

Ahrendt, who notes that Jessie is one of his daughter's favorite actresses, adds that she should even be able to dance again.

Back at the Children's Theatre, the play never reopened. Jessie's castmates, who have flooded her with cards and gifts, voted to shut it down the day after she was injured.

Friends gave her a ring that says: "When you have faith, everything is possible."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384 •

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