I-35W bridge survivor vents outrage

  • Article by: Pam Louwagie
  • Star Tribune
  • October 11, 2007 - 11:43 PM

Talking with fellow survivors who went down with the Interstate 35W bridge, Kimberly Brown could see the frustration growing among some of them: Lost wages. Trouble paying bills. An inability to keep up with daily chores.

On Thursday, Brown took their pleas to politicians, e-mailing a strongly worded letter to state senators and both of Minnesota's U.S. senators, calling for some governmental help.

"Survivors have been frustrated and angry with the red tape and lack of response, and who can blame them," Brown wrote in a two-page letter. "... where is the State of Minnesota and Federal government's culpability? Why is a nonprofit organization the only agency helping victims? This isn't even their bridge."

Brown's letter isn't likely to be the only one.

She is part of a group of bridge survivors that has been meeting weekly, and others said they also plan to send letters about their concerns for meeting long-term needs.

A passenger in a car on the way to a soccer game, Brown fell with the bridge's midsection and had to crawl through the driver's-side window to reach the stable slab of concrete that landed in the river. She said she has suffered lasting emotional effects along with some back and neck pain.

Survivor Lindsay Petterson, who was injured when her car plunged into the water, said in an e-mail that Brown's letter summed up what some survivors are feeling.

Petterson said she has mounting medical bills and needs a new car. She believes insurance won't cover everything and donations won't last forever.

"Things will get better, but I think the thing that gets me the most is that the political rhetoric is all about the new bridge, as if everyone will forget what happened to the old one if we just hear about bigger and better," Petterson wrote. "The public thinks that everything has been handled well and that our politicians have done right by us, but that's simply not the case."

Chris Messerly, an attorney with a consortium of lawyers representing survivors and victims' families for free, said he's heard similar frustrations from many "despite, I think, some fantastic intentions by nonprofits."

As of early this month, nearly $1 million had been contributed to the Minnesota Helps: Bridge Disaster Fund, which was organized by several Twin Cities philanthropic foundations to pool community contributions and give grants to organizations helping victims.

Last month, local government leaders and organizations made efforts to streamline the process to help survivors faster.

'We have to step back'

State Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said the emotion was evident in Brown's letter, but he said he doesn't think the state can promise anything until the collapse investigation is finished.

"There's an obvious ... human side to all of us that says we want to do this," Senjem said. "Then I think we have to step back ... Was there fault? Obviously the bridge fell, but we don't know the reasons yet in terms of why it fell. Was there neglect on behalf of the state of Minnesota?"

U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, through spokespersons, said they are responding to Brown's letter and will try to help her connect with available services.

Some state legislators are trying to establish a victims' fund similar to one Congress set up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The House State Government Finance Division Committee plans to hold two hearings on the matter in the next two months.

State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who drafted a bill to set up a fund, said that, unlike a typical car accident, there's no question that the people on the bridge didn't contribute to their fate.

"There's no way it's any of their faults that they got injured," he said. "The only question is: How much money do they deserve?"

Survivor Amy Lindholm, a medical assistant who landed on the center span and helped treat other survivors while they waited to be rescued, said she also plans to write a letter and agrees with much in Brown's e-mail.

She said she's been able to work only part-time because of a back injury, and is having trouble paying bills.

Charities have helped her this month, she said, but she worries about the future.

"It's really upsetting to all of us, because they're moving onto this new bridge and they really haven't helped us," she said.

'Fix this'

Brown said in an interview Thursday evening that she wants leaders to set aside blame and help people simply because they need it.

She said she wants survivors to recoup what they're losing because of the collapse.

"I want these innocent people ... taken care of by the entities that were in charge, or partially in charge, of that bridge," she wrote in her letter. "And not just today, but months and years from now.

"It's time to slow down and back up," she wrote. "Your new bridge is going up too fast. You still have a huge mess from the old one. Fix this."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

Pam Louwagie •

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