Victims of the I-35W bridge collapse said Monday they'd happily trade their settlement money just to have reached the other side. But several also said the connections they've made with one another have been a unique support through the months of physical and emotional struggle since the catastrophe, which they believe they will face every day of their lives. Erica Gwillim, 36, Minneapolis

Gwillim said that when she saw a photo of her car stopped at the foot of a huge uplifted piece of bridge deck, she felt as if she'd been "in the hand of God."

Describing herself as a born-again Christian, Gwillim told attorneys to give her settlement money to other victims. As it was, she donated a share to her church.

"I believe God put me on that bridge for a reason," she said.

Gwillim said she hopes the settlement sends a message to companies that they must operate with integrity and take responsibility for mistakes.

"I know this is not going to heal us, ever," she said. "Justice would have been for this never to have happened. I would give everything back if I didn't have back pain every day."

The Coulter family

Brad and Paula Coulter, of Savage, and their daughters, Brianna and Brandi, were on their way to meet relatives for "burgers and beer" as a sendoff for Brianna, who was on her way to Winona State University on a soccer scholarship. All were injured when their car flipped and landed upside down on the bridge wreckage. Paula, 46, spent months in the hospital with head, neck and back injuries, and received the highest awards from a state compensation fund and from the private settlement announced Monday. Neither Brianna, whose back needed fusion surgery, nor Brandi, who missed her high school senior soccer season, has been able to play collegiate soccer.

The settlement "is never going to bring back what we've lost -- physical function, the things we take for granted," said Paula. Brad said he believes it has brought the family closer together. But the catastrophe had a wider effect, too, he added.

"We help each other out. We want our loved ones to be safe," he said. "But if bridges can become safer, that's what we're after."

Garrett Ebling, 35, Andover

Ebling broke every bone in his face. He has wires in his chin, jaw and forehead, as well as his arm and ankle. When he first saw himself in a mirror a month and a half after the collapse, he cried.

"It's still hard to wake up and feel 70 years old," he said. "But the physical recovery went a lot faster than the emotional recovery."

He'd gotten engaged four days before the collapse, and got married in 2008. At the time of his marriage, he said, "Everything was healed but I was still feeling bitter and short with people. It really cheated my wife in a lot of ways. I feel now that I'm out of that fog, we're starting on our marriage."

His fellow victims, he added, have brought "new and lasting friendships."

"It's a small set of people, but so vital for me in my recovery," he said. "We've learned to cherish the present because we're starkly reminded that the future isn't guaranteed."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646