On August 1st, as she has done every August 1st since 2007, Lindsay Walz will rise in the darkness to witness — and savor — the sunrise.
Then she'll grab a bit of breakfast and head down to the Mississippi River where, in the seconds it took the 35W bridge to collapse and in the minutes she was submerged in the blackness of its water, she gave herself up to death, only to survive.
"It's just this really important part of life. I started to call it 'Life Day,' " she said. "I've got my birthday, but I've also got my 'Life Day.' "
In those seconds, in those minutes, Walz became forever linked to the others who were trapped on that traffic-choked steel and concrete span when it buckled and collapsed just after 6 p.m. Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145. For months afterward, she and the others sought answers and accountability. In the years that followed, they yearned for healing and purpose, too.
Some, like Walz, still struggle, wondering why they were spared while others were not. Some, like Walz, have forged new directions and lives filled with feelings of guilt and gratitude, of second chances and rediscovered purpose.
After a decade of pain and anger and searching for direction, Walz said, she is finally pursuing joy. Four years ago, she acted on a lifelong dream and founded a nonprofit youth center where she volunteers every day.
"I have felt so guilty for being alive. I can't explain how I survived," she said. "Every fact about my story says I should be dead. So, because I don't feel like I was actively involved in my own survival, I think I had to prove that I was worthy to still be here. So I have to get better. I have to do this."
Creeping to disaster
Aug. 1, 2007, had been "a really great day" for Walz, then known as Lindsay Petterson. She started up her 2000 Volkswagen Passat and began the long drive home to her Lake Calhoun-area apartment from Shoreview, where she worked at a group home for troubled adolescents.
Earlier that day, the 24-year-old University of Minnesota graduate had started teaching her teens independent living skills — such as setting budgets and balancing a checkbook — and "they were really all into it. I was really excited to go back the next day."
As Walz drove south on Interstate 35W near the Quarry in northeast Minneapolis, traffic came to a crawl. With several lanes closed ahead because of repair work and heavy equipment on the bridge spanning the Mississippi, she contemplated getting off the freeway at the 4th Street exit.
"But I was in the left-hand lane and it was too much trouble to have somebody let me over to exit," she said.
So she kept going.
By the time Walz inched her way to the middle of the bridge, traffic had stalled. As she sat, car idling, she heard a loud bang, and thought a construction worker had dropped something huge, something metal. And then, she remembers, "it was like the ground opened up in front of me."
Suddenly, her car nose-dived off the bridge and plunged into the void, falling more than 100 feet. Seeing only dust and airborne debris, Walz gripped the steering wheel, expecting to "splat" on concrete. Instead, her car hit water and started sinking. The windows were closed, but water rushed in through the front air vents. In seconds, the car hit the river bottom.
"By the time my car stopped moving, I was immersed in water," Walz said. "There was no air anywhere."
She'd lost her glasses, but in the black, muddy water, it didn't matter. She unbuckled her seat belt and began pushing, pounding and kicking against the doors and windows.
She drifted into the back of the car, her body pressing against the back seat. Her shoes had come off. She gulped water. Then she gulped some more.
She was running out of air and running out of time.
"As soon as that started to happen, I started shifting mentally. I shifted away from fighting to just accepting that I was going to die," she said, choking at the memory. "I knew where I was. I knew it would take forever to get anybody there and no one was going to be there to help me. … Nobody was going to know I was here until I was well gone."
Floating toward light
Walz had lost family and friends. She'd heard stories about how those who are dying sometimes see loved ones who'd passed. At that moment, she wanted her family to know she was thinking of them, that she loved them "and that I was saying 'Goodbye.' "
A sense of calm enveloped her. She waited, she said, for the "milestones" of death — the bright light she'd heard so much about, the floating out of her body. Indeed, at that moment, she was in fact floating. And she saw a flash of light.
"I had been thrashing around in my car enough to know the boundaries of it," she said. "I knew how far I could go. And I was beyond that. So I was thinking 'I must be dead, because I'm floating … But if this is what death feels like, it doesn't feel like anything different.' "
It still felt like life. So she kicked. She kicked some more. Seconds later, she broke the surface of the water gasping for air.
Walz saw the lock and dam and turned to see a slab of concrete in the river, with broken and twisted beams all around it. Then she saw a construction worker, and he saw her. Jeff Ringate, who had also plunged with the ruined bridge, shouted out and waved her to the fallen bridge deck, where he reached out to her with a broom handle and pulled her to safety.
Walz heard voices calling for help and saw several dozen dazed people on the collapsed deck. Across the river, cars were scattered across parts of the fallen bridge as those who survived the collapse sobbed or talked on phones.
She sat by a median and waited for help. Pain, from cuts on her feet and hands and in her lower back, washed over her.
A woman in scrubs asked Walz where she was hurt and what she needed. Amy Lindholm, a medical assistant, had fallen with the bridge as well, and had fractured a vertebra in her back.
Walz used Lindholm's phone to call her boyfriend, Dave Walz. Normally, they worked and commuted together. But he'd filled an overnight shift for a co-worker and was home in bed.
She got his voice mail, recited what had happened, then called work and asked a colleague to get ahold of Dave.
After what seemed like a couple of hours, boat-borne paramedics arrived and took Walz to shore. She was strapped to a backboard and laid on the riverbank, soon to be slipped into the back of a pickup truck for the drive to the hospital.
As she looked up, she saw storm clouds gathering and people on the 10th Avenue bridge, gazing down at her. The buzz of a helicopter and the piercing sirens of emergency vehicles seemed miles away.
A wall of fear
Walz would spend five days in the hospital, her L1 vertebra shattered. She spent another five months in a back brace, receiving physical therapy, terrified of being bumped into at the grocery store and shattering her spine.
"I felt very fragile," she said.
Mentally and emotionally, Walz was a wreck. She was angry and scared. Every time she crossed a bridge or sensed vibrations on a bridge deck, she felt a churn inside her, too. When she showered, she held her breath, not realizing she was doing so until she struggled to breathe.
She tried to return to work, but couldn't. She couldn't work with teens whose lives were in disarray while her life also was in upheaval.
"I was this wall of fear. The kids were so needy and I couldn't be strong enough for them," she said. "I couldn't be the person they needed."
So she quit, leaving behind the co-workers who had been like family and the workplace where she'd met her boyfriend.
In September 2008, 11 months after the bridge's collapse, a new bridge opened to traffic.
By then, however, survivors, relatives of victims, and attorneys and legislators were in the midst of a flurry of legal action and lobbying that would take three years to complete. By the time it ended, $101.5 million was paid out by the state and several bridge contractors to survivors and victims' families, including $1.5 million that survivors insisted be spent on a memorial honoring those who died.
Eventually, the National Transportation Safety Board would conclude that the bridge fell in large part because gusset plates holding parts of it together were thinner than they should have been, though excessive weight from a repair project also was cited.
For Walz and others who lived through the harrowing experience, however, daily life was still a struggle.
Slowly, her home life was splintering.
Dave Walz wanted to be there for her. And for the first years after the collapse, he was. But the emotional ups and downs of his often seething girlfriend wore on him.
"I understood her anger, that it was maybe triggered by me and directed at me, but probably not about me," he said. "Over time, though, it was hard to bear."
Lindsay Walz acknowledged that a culmination of "little things" filled her with anger, guilt and pain. While recovering at home, she would be anxious to see Dave at the end of the day, yet get mad at him when she heard his key in the lock.
"I would blame it all on something he did or didn't do," she said. "I was often curled up in a fetal position for a whole day. As much as I thought I was working to get better, I was stuck in a pattern of really unhealthy behavior."
Despite his own feelings of guilt for not sticking it out, Dave sent her an e-mail while out of town, saying he couldn't take it anymore. That was it. They were done.
Learning to take care
After months apart, Lindsay finally began doing the things that she needed to do to become healthy again. She started painting. She began exercising. She continued several types of therapy. All was meant to help her find balance.
Dave Walz said she simply wouldn't give up on herself — or on them.
"She did what she does. She was persistent and she knew she wanted to get back together," he said. "She was taking care of herself, her mind, her body."
They married on Jan. 1, 2012.
Not long after, Lindsay took about $25,000 of her settlement money and invested in her dream: to start a nonprofit working with youth.
On Aug. 1, 2013, the sixth anniversary of the collapse, she opened Courageous heARTS, a south Minneapolis drop-in art center where teens can express themselves without fear of judgment or anger or conflict. She volunteers every hour she spends at the youth center, which operates on an annual budget of less than $50,000 that is dependent entirely on donations.
Walz chose art as the focus in part because learning to paint helped her heal. She jokes that a painting of a monster that she created during her breakup with Dave has since been transformed as "the cutest monster you've ever seen." The new cracks she painted on the monster reveal human flesh and hair.
"You can see its humanity again," she said. "As I went on, I saw my own humanity returning and I was able to be kinder to myself."
At a recent open house at the center, Walz moved easily among the adults and young people who stopped by to learn more and try their hand at drawing or painting. Smiling and laughing, she seemed miles away from the dust, debris and dark water of Aug. 1, 2007.
But in a quiet moment, she admitted that she's kept a few pieces of the bridge. One was given to her several years after the collapse and sits in a closet. She found the other while walking a path along the downtown side of the Mississippi River shortly after the new 35W bridge opened. As Walz looked down, she saw a big green bolt. It now sits on her dresser, a reminder of her suffering — and of a second chance.
"That one feels like it was given to me by the universe," she said.
To this day, she has no idea how she escaped the dark waters of her submerged car. Someone lightheartedly suggested she got help from a mermaid. Walz decided that was as good an explanation as any, and eventually had a tattoo of a mermaid inked onto her right forearm.
"I can't imagine my life being any other way than it is. In that way, I am grateful for [the bridge]," she said. "As much as it's this really hard and painful thing — and there are days where I still fall asleep crying and wake up crying — I have learned that I will get through to the other side of it."
James Walsh • 651-925-5041