Saturday, August 04, 2007

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

It’s been a couple of days since the 35W bridge collapsed several blocks from my house, killing a few people and injuring almost 100. I’ve been watching the TV, catching up on the web, but not really processing the issue, other than leaving to go to work early and experiencing delays in my travel home via bus.

Now that it’s the weekend, I’ve had a bit of time to process my thoughts and describe the last few days.

I wrote several paragraphs about what happened on the night the collapse occurred, in part by request of a friend of my mother’s who is a reporter at the newspaper in her town. The e-mail requested information from people who used to live in the town to describe how the collapse affected their life. They used a couple of paragraphs from my account in their story.
I also sent the write-up to relatives and a couple of friends.

Here is that write-up minus the names in an effort to remain relatively anonymous on-line.

Commuting around a disaster

I was working late in downtown Minneapolis when Ravenhub called me from home to tell me the bridge had collapsed. I made a turn around the floor to let my co-workers and the cleaning crew know what happened. I was the only one still at work who would need to make it across the river.

I was able to catch a Number 10 MetroTransit bus on the Nicollet Mall at 6:20 p.m. It goes across the river on the 3rd Avenue Bridge, the first trafficked bridge north of the 35W bridge. The Stone Arch Bridge is between these two bridges and is not open to unauthorized vehicles.

Traffic was bumper to bumper downtown. The bus was unusually full for that time of day and everyone was talking about the bridge collapse. One woman had a phone that carried a news feed and she read it out loud for the rest of us. It took about 20 minutes to get down to the river. Emergency vehicles were flying past every five minutes or so. I saw cars from Golden Valley, Medicine Lake, Anoka, and the sheriff’s office. I saw one dive team truck from the county and three emergency boats. Several fire department trucks came through as well as ambulances from local hospitals. There were at least 5 helicopters in the air from news stations. I saw three ambulance helicopters flying low overhead as they headed to the collapse site.

When we finally made it to the river, traffic was stopped and we crept along in jerks and starts. As we came into view of the accident, the entire bus gasped in unison. We couldn’t see the collapse; we only saw the lack of the bridge we expected to see. Black smoke was billowing from the West Bank and filling the air.

There were hundreds of spectators on the Stone Arch Bridge and the occasional police car used that bridge to cross the river quickly. Probably ten times as we crossed the river, a distance of about one city block, cars had to squeeze over to the side to allow emergency vehicles to fly down the middle of the 4-lane bridge.

In all, it took about an hour on the bus to travel what usually takes less than ten minutes. I got off the bus at Central and East Hennepin and began to walk home. Where I would normally expect to see a bus go by every 10 minutes, I saw none; everyone was tied up in the traffic jam over the river.

There were crowds of people walking and many on bicycles coming and going from the bridge site: far more than I would normally see on a weekday night in the neighborhood. When I crossed over 35W on the 8th St. SE bridge, I saw an occasional emergency vehicle moving below. The north end of the bridge was not in sight, but there were dozens of emergency vehicles parked along the highway.

I arrived home around 8 p.m. Ravenhub said the phone had been ringing every ten minutes or so from friends checking to see if we were OK. All of our friends know that we travel that bridge at about that time every day. My brother-in-law called in. He had been on the bridge just before 6 p.m. on his way home from work. It was his lucky day. I called my mother and left a message on her machine telling her we were all doing fine.

Ravendaughter was working security at the Target Center where they were getting ready for a news conference about the Timberwolves trade of local hero Kevin Garnett. In an instant, she said, reporters jumped out of their chairs and flew out of the building. The press conference was cancelled. She walked home from work along Washington Avenue and saw lots of emergency and media vehicles, but no survivors with injuries. Most of the injured made it to the hospitals or the Red Cross within minutes of the collapse.

Catching up with friends, via Iraq

Within hours of the event, I got an e-mail from my friend who returned to Iraq to help rebuild his country. He is a native Iraqi and U.S. citizen who lived here in Minneapolis for nearly 20 years. He went back to Iraq to help his family and friends. I sent him a copy of my account.

Over the next few hours, he re-sent my e-mail out to other friends and he forwarded other reports he received from mutual friends in the Twin Cities. So, bizarre as it may seem, the best round-up I got about how the collapse affected other antiwar activists was from a former Minnesotan now living in Najav, Iraq.

The city today

Today, President Bush came and went. The major news conferences are over. The politicians have flown back to Washington, D.C. Perhaps the big media companies will take down their satellite dishes and return to picking up feeds from the local stations. I hope so.

Meanwhile, some areas of the city have been turned into massive staging areas by law enforcement with many public roads blocked off. It is impossible to get to any public space within view of the collapsed bridge. It is possible to see the area from the new Guthrie Theater on the riverfront just north of 35W. Its observation deck, a cantilevered mass of blue glass, was meant to be an area for the public to admire the river. As of today, the public is officially uninvited. The Guthrie is allowing only those with tickets to performances to access the view. In the words of a character from one of the Guthrie’s most popular holiday performances, I say, "Bah, humbug!"

The truth is, we Minneapolitans need to be able to see the collapsed bridge, just as New Yorkers needed to see Ground Zero. When a landmark we’ve all depended upon is destroyed, we need to process that and grieve its passing. The emergency has passed; no survivors will be found now. The investigation and the clean up must continue, but this massive display of police power is unhelpful. The roads are closed. One public park has been closed off an turned into what looks like a massive military encampment with mess tents, klieg lights that burn all night long, and boys and their toys from police forces and fire departments from around the state. All of this despite the fact that the real rescues and the true heroics came from ordinary citizens who happened to be there in the first couple of hours after the collapse.

In the past few days, I’ve travelled back and forth across the river on other bridges (obviously) and haven’t had a moments thought about their safety. It seems such a bizarre tragedy that the idea it could happen again is not even entering my consciousness. I can’t explain it.

Our cynicism is kicking in. Why are they keeping the public away? Is it to hide the evidence of that mysterious UFO that flew into the bridge? (OK. That was my homage to the recently defunct Weekly World News!). People are fully anticipating the appearance of Halliburton soon along with the other corporate vultures that profit from catastrophe.

One co-worker who eats lunch in the company cafeteria at the same time I do came up with a great idea. Since the Red Cross headquarters is within viewing distance of the collapse, why not create a public observation area and charge people a few bucks, a pint of blood, or a donation to the food shelves for the opportunity to see the collapsed bridge?

Everyday Heroes

A lot of commentary about the events on Wednesday focuses on the quick response of ordinary citizens to help fellow citizens survive and escape the chaos after the collapse. Minnesotans are known for their generosity in times of trouble. We live in an environment that is extremely inhospitable in the winter. We experience summer-related events such as lightning strikes, straight-line winds and tornadoes. We’ve all been thoroughly trained in handling disasters. We get weather reports every 15 minutes or so on every TV and radio channel every day all year round.

So we’re known for responding quickly and effectively in a disaster. We know how to help strangers stuck in the snow. We know how to clean up after floods and tornadoes. We are known for raising money, volunteers and bringing expertise to help people suffering unexpected tragedies across the country and around the world. We know to act immediately and to work together, because that’s how we survive in this environment.

You probably will hear some bragging about that for a while. Which will mean you get only part of the story. The full story is a little less praise-worthy. Minnesotans are helpful to strangers. We do come through in a crisis. On the other hand, we are fairly hard to get to know on any level outside the superficial and the occasional rescue from crisis. People who move here from friendlier places, especially the south or from smaller rural communities, are put off by how hard it is to become trusted and to make lasting friendships here.

I carry this attitude to the internet. I’ve communicating on blogs and forums with lots of people and formed relationships of respect and affection. But I don’t communicate via e-mail off the blogs and I don’t call people up on the phone. It’s our way.

The people who have checked in and let me know they are happy I was unhurt have touched me. I appreciate your comments. Consider that effusive friendliness from a typical Minnesotan.

Give me a call the next time you get stuck in the snow.

Some Interesting Links

High-resolution photos from the Minnesota Daily, student newspaper at the University of Minnesota

Minnesota bloggers checking in and commentary

Blog of Noah Kunin who lives under the bridge and witnessed the collapse


Daisy said...

Wonderful personal account, Raven, I enjoyed reading it. So glad you and your family are okay!

Ravenmn said...

Welcome, Daisy and thanks for your comment. I just recently found your blog and I'm enjoying the discussions.