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Demaris Montoya, 18, was among the survivors on a school bus that was headed back to the Waite House in Minneapolis’ Philips Neighborhood when the 35W bridge collapsed beneath them.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Demaris Montoya: 'I felt like we grew up in that instant'

  • July 29, 2012 - 6:53 AM
Montoya, 13 at the time, was riding a packed school bus back from a Waite House outing at a water park. She suffered an injured back.

Twice a week this summer, 18-year-old Demaris Montoya helps herd a group of rambunctious kids in the community program that shaped her. Now an adult volunteer there, she sorts through wooden blocks of letters to help a boy form words. She listens intently as a young girl proudly reads aloud.

On some days, there are a couple of kids in the small classroom who have a special bond with Montoya. They survived a disaster together.

"I feel like we're closer," she said, even though they rarely talk about the bridge. "When they're struggling, they come to me."

Montoya was 13 when she and 53 other students floated inside the school bus atop the tumbling 35W bridge, then landed with a sharp whack. For a few seconds, they all sat in stunned silence as smoke and dust filled the air.

Everyone on the bus got out safely. Next to them, a truck burned, its driver killed.

Many of the older children from the bus are now in college, their innocence lost with the falling bridge that day.

"I felt like we grew up in that instant, really," Montoya said. "We were barely beginning to be teens and starting to think we were invincible, but then that just got shot down."

Soon after the collapse, students gathered back at Waite House, a day camp and after-school program for Phillips neighborhood kids. Counselors were waiting.

"It was hard to go back to our normal lives because we had to go through so much therapy and chiropractic and stuff, and we had to meet with lawyers," Montoya said.

But they had each other. The students helped one another in the days, months and years afterward. Eventually, they got back on buses and traveled over bridges again.

Waite House Youth Program Manager Julie Graves, who was also on the bus that day, said she thinks it helped them to spend time near others who experienced the same tragedy. Waite House students already felt like a close-knit family, she said, and the bonds grew stronger.

"The majority of kids are doing really great," Graves said. "They support each other and have dreams and aspirations."

Montoya will start her second year at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where she is studying social work. The collapse prompted her and others to focus and make the most of every opportunity.

"It kind of changes your way of thinking, at such a young age," Montoya said. "It made me think about life and how it can go as easy as it came. Anything can happen. Anything."

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