Skeptical or accepting, survivors are listening

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • November 13, 2008 - 8:44 PM

Lindsay Petterson sat with a handful of fellow survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse Thursday, as National Transportation Safety Board investigators gave their report on what caused the span to suddenly plummet into the Mississippi River that August evening more than 15 months ago.

Whatever federal investigators said during the webcast hearing, it wouldn't be the final word in Petterson's mind.

Like getting a second opinion in a hospital, Petterson said, she wants a second opinion on the collapse, too.

"If I got a bad diagnosis from a doctor ... I'm going to go to a couple of different doctors to find out that they all agree," she said.

Some other survivors voiced similar hesitations about the federal investigation now coming to a close, saying they expect to hear from other experts about the evidence.

Erica Gwillim said she listened to part of the hearing and isn't convinced she'll ever know for sure what happened. "I feel like this is going to continue to be something that I don't have answers to," she said. "Somehow I just have to be OK with that."

Garrett Ebling said in a written statement that he is hopeful that private attorneys who have hired their own investigators and engineers will develop a clearer picture of the cause, "and those ultimately responsible may be found."

Thursday's hearing will continue today, and some survivors said they were reserving judgment until they had a chance to hear everything.

Survivor Bernie Toivonen went on with his painting job Thursday, planning to catch NTSB highlights in the news.

He knew based on previous reports that the board would focus on the design of gusset plates that held beams together. He said he thinks he will trust the NTSB's conclusions.

"You can't turn back the clock, you know, it happened 40 years ago when they designed it," he said.

Toivonen said he feels lucky that he wasn't injured as badly as many survivors. He has some lower back pain, but he's trying to move forward. "I was angry, but I'm kind of, you know, trying to get past it."

Danielle Fredrickson said she was too busy at work to watch the hearing, but she welcomed "just finally knowing what truly their ruling is and not just the speculation anymore."

Fredrickson said the results won't change anything, wherever blame may lie. She can't help but feel that ultimately the state is responsible for maintaining bridges.

"Mistakes do happen and everybody makes mistakes," she said. "Forty years ago, they didn't have the technology we have today."

Several survivors echoed the sentiments of attorney Chris Messerly, who is part of a consortium of lawyers representing survivors.

"I'll take [the NTSB's] opinion -- and that's all it is, is an opinion -- with a grain of salt," Messerly said. "They're not experts in why bridges fall down. We went and found the experts in that and they're waiting anxiously to be able to see the real evidence."

Petterson said the technical language and concepts in Thursday's hearing were difficult to decipher. Still, it was important for her to watch it alongside others who lived through the collapse, she said.

"At the end of it all I just hope that whatever conclusions are made, they will ensure that it never happens again for the rest of the country," Petterson said. "That's the only thing that any of us, I think, can really hope for is that whatever we've been through, no one else will."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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