Clutching a large bolt that had been sheared in half as the I-35W bridge collapsed beneath her, Kim Dahl said she hoped having a piece of the fallen bridge would help her and her family put the deadly episode behind them.

“Just seeing the stuff, all the mangled wreckage up close, is just a reality — I mean this was what was beneath us when we fell,” Kim Dahl said as she and others who survived when the span tumbled into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, 2007, accepted pieces of the bridge from state officials Wednesday.

Dahl, whose back was broken in the disaster, said she hoped engineers had been able to use the parts to figure out what caused the bridge to fall.

“They needed to find out how what has caused this to happen so that it doesn’t ever, ever happen again to anybody,” she said.

Dahl’s daughter, Arrianna Merritt, now 16, and her younger brother were on a school bus their mother was driving for a summer program when the bridge gave way during the afternoon rush hour.

Wednesday, the teen said she was still in disbelief over the collapse that killed 13 people and injured 145.

“I kind of don’t even think I’m here — I think it’s just a dream,” Merritt said as she stood in a warehouse in Oakdale, among tons of twisted, sheared steel painted army green, recalling images she’ll never forget.

“You saw the cars, and you saw the bridge, but everything else was just kind of gone; you didn’t know where it went, ” said Merritt, who suffered a concussion. “Then you saw all the people stranded on little pieces of concrete, and you worried about if they were going to get off or not.”

More coming in September

About two dozen survivors and representatives of victims were expected Wednesday at the warehouse owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) in Oakdale to collect pieces of the twisted steel, with another 10 or so slated to collect some in September, said Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman for the agency.

“Hopefully it’s done and over with and out of our lives,” Merritt said as her father loaded up hunks of steel to drive home.

The man who dreamed up the distribution, Brent Olson, was there gathering up pieces as well. He and wife Chris Olson, both 64, were on the span near downtown when it fell all around them.

Olson contacted former MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorrel and Gutknecht several times over the years with a request that survivors or their families be given pieces of the bridge that fell after a gusset plate failed.

Wednesday, that plate, which is a thick sheet of steel used to connect beams and girders, was among the struts, sheared bolts and other pieces eligible for distribution.

Gutknecht said the last of the lawsuit claims were recently paid, and that, along with a new state law, made it possible to distribute the state-owned property to those directly affected, including first responders.

Universities, civic groups and the Minnesota Historical Society also are eligible for the steel.

State officials expect to give away 121 tons of the 3,380 tons of steel. The rest will be sold to metal recyclers for roughly $645,000 to cover a fraction of the millions in compensation paid to survivors.

Dealing with challenges

The Olsons received the smallest payout, but the 2007 bridge tragedy and its emotional fallout became one of the greatest challenges of their lives, along with the prostate cancer that Brent successfully fought and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease given to Chris Olson.

They had been on the way to see the Twins game on the eve of their 38th wedding anniversary when Chris Olson, gazing at the lock and dam on the Mississippi, felt the bridge tremble.

“Is it an earthquake?” she asked.

“No, the bridge is falling,” her husband said, watching one section fall and then another. Then a big ramp on the north bank flipped.

“It collapsed coming toward us,” Brent Olson said, “and when the section in front of us went, I said, ‘I love you,” and waited thinking, ‘We’re next.’ ”

The section behind them fell, too, leaving them stranded high above the Mississippi River in their 1997 green Jaguar — on one section that still stood.

“We gotta get out,” Brent Olson said.

Chris Olson got out of the car and stood up, only to be hit with a searing cloud of rolling dust that blistered her chest and blinded her.

They slid down a steep hunk of bridge and made their way to help.

That night, they went home to White Bear Lake and sat on their couch, crying and hugging all night.

Amid their worst year, however, came a bright spot: Their first granddaughter was born, and she’s since been followed by a second.

The Olsons, who recently celebrated their 44th anniversary, gathered up small pieces of the bridge, intended for their granddaughters.

And then, Brent Olson tucked into his trunk a flat piece of steel about the size of a laptop, saying he would mount on it a photo of their green Jaguar as it remained parked for two months on the section that remained standing.

He had bided his time patiently for years, as the litigation was resolved, to finally collect some steel.

“I waited,” he said, “because I wanted to make sure it doesn’t get forgotten.”