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In an image from a video camera mounted in his vehicle, Andy Gannon drove over the new bridge on Wednesday for the first time since the collapse, remembering every moment of that crossing in 2007.

Amanda Marzullo, Star Tribune

Andy Gannon

Andy Gannon

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

Paula Coulter kept her eyes closed during part of a play called “In the Water,” part of Wednesday’s commemoration at the Mill City Museum of the five-year anniversary of the I-35W bridge collapse. Coulter is a survivor of the collapse.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

35W bridge survivor crosses again

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • August 1, 2012 - 11:30 PM

Andy Gannon took a deep breath.

Behind the wheel Wednesday on rush-hour jammed Washington Avenue, he maneuvered his car into the left turn lane, blinker flashing, just like five years ago.

In blaring August sun, he waited again to turn onto the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River.

He glanced over at the bridge, so different than the one that fell from under him. It had taken years of emotional healing to get to this point, and he was pushing himself. On the five-year anniversary of the collapse, he was determined to finish the journey he had started.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

He took another deep breath.

In 2007, Gannon had been on his way to pay his respects at a Roseville funeral home when the unthinkable happened.

He heard a loud boom. He saw the north end of the bridge buckle like a snake coming toward him. He thought he was going to die.

Across the freeway, he watched a Taystee truck catch fire, he heard kids screaming on a school bus, he saw cars sink into the water.

Days later, Gannon felt grateful to be one of the lucky ones; his portion of the bridge didn't fall far. The frame of his car was wrecked, but his biggest injury was bumping his head on the ceiling.

"I thought, 'Oh my God. I have a second chance. This is awesome, this is great. I'm gonna do this, this and this,'" he recalled.

And he did. He spent the next five years concentrating on doing nice things for people and complaining less. He stopped yelling at people in traffic, he hugged friends tightly, he gave his extra Twins tickets to total strangers. He traveled more, ran a marathon and spent more time with his wife and two daughters. He is more understanding of strangers, realizing that people may be dealing with tragedies of their own.

Amid all that, he didn't see the emotional trauma coming at first.

Several months after the collapse, as he approached a different bridge on his way to work, he pulled over. "I just started bawling," he said.

As Gannon worked with a therapist to rebuild his emotional health, construction crews rebuilt the fallen bridge. When it opened a year after the collapse, Gannon tried to be the first survivor to cross it, but logistics foiled his plans.

Gannon ended up avoiding the bridge ever since, feeling it was never the right time, afraid of the emotions it might trigger. So he would exit the interstate and take the 10th Avenue bridge. Or he'd drive a different way completely, crossing the river on I-94.

This summer, it seemed, crossing the bridge was the last major step he needed to take. When he saw that the fifth anniversary would be on another searing Wednesday -- much like the day of the collapse -- the time finally seemed right.

•••

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, Gannon pulled his Ford Edge into the lot at Bobby and Steve's Auto World, just as he had done five years earlier.

As other survivors and officials began gathering for a ceremony at the Mill City Museum just blocks away, Gannon decided to finish his mission before joining them.

"If there's any time that I should do this and get this over with so I can just move on and get closure, this is the day," he said.

He recounted all the things that transpired to put him on the bridge the moment it fell: How he had left his downtown job happy and late after making a big sale; how he had stopped to get $5 worth of gas; how he hadn't made a complete stop at a sign so he could beat traffic as he pulled back onto Washington Avenue.

He stood in the hot summer air, watching cars cut each other off, watching customers pump gas. It all seemed eerily similar.

"It's ironic." Gannon paused, unable to speak for a while. "Literally, it's the same type of day.

"If you went back," he said, staring, "you'd have no idea what was going to happen in seven minutes."

•••

As he sat in the left lane of Washington Avenue minutes later, turn signal blinking, Gannon took his foot off the brake and pushed on the gas.

It was time.

He turned left. He remembered every second of that other time.

Merging into the whirring traffic, he was atop the bridge before he knew it, relieved that he couldn't see the water below. His car sped up as it crossed.

Gannon continued on to Roseville and stopped at the funeral home that he was headed for five years earlier. His journey was finally complete.

"I made it," he said as he got out of his car, pumping his fist into the air but not smiling. "Relief might not be the word. I feel satisfied that this is over and accomplished."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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