Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How the 35W bridge collapse changed my view of bridges August 8, 2014

SEVEN YEARS AGO at 6:05 p.m. on August 1, 2007, the 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145. It is a moment that all of us who call Minnesota home will remember with a deep sense of sadness.

Crossing the 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis.

Crossing the 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis.

Last weekend, my husband and I traveled across the “new” 35W bridge, marked by wavy pillars. I didn’t realize we were on the bridge until I noticed the 30-foot high water symbol sculptures. We seldom drive this way and I’m just not all that familiar with Twin Cities roadways.

Nearing the other end of the 35W bridge.

Nearing the other end of the 35W bridge.

As we crossed the bridge, my thoughts flashed back to that terrible tragedy and specifically to survivor Garrett Ebling, former managing editor of the Faribault Daily News, the newspaper in my community. He was among those most seriously injured when his Ford Focus plunged into the Mississippi River.

This photo shows the opening spread of the feature article published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Casey McGovern of Minneapolis shot the bridge collapse scene. To the far left is Garrett before the collapse, to the right, his rescuer. The next photo shows his Ford Focus which plummeted into the Mississippi River. And to the right are Garrett and Sonja, before the collapse.

This photo shows the opening spread of the feature article published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Casey McGovern of Minneapolis shot the bridge collapse scene. To the far left is Garrett  Ebling before the collapse, to the right, his rescuer, Rick Kraft. The next photo shows his Ford Focus which plummeted into the Mississippi River. And to the right are Garrett and and his fiancee, Sonja Birkeland, before the collapse. On the second page are photos of Garrett in the hospital.

Shortly after the collapse, Garrett was the subject of a magazine feature article I wrote on his experience and survival. I interviewed him via email as he was unable to speak. He impressed me then with his tenacity and determination. I also interviewed his then fiancee, Sonja Birkeland, and his rescuer, Rick Kraft.

Garrett Ebling's book.

Garrett Ebling’s book.

In 2013, I published a review here of his book, Collapsed, A Survivor’s Climb from the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge. You can read that review by clicking here.

Garrett, like so many others, was simply commuting home when the bridge gave way. The ordinariness of this, I think, strikes me most. Just driving home…

I’ve never liked bridges. Not because I’m afraid they will fall, but because I don’t like heights. I remember a brother-in-law asking shortly after the collapse whether I was now afraid to cross a bridge. I’m not.

But, like many Minnesotans, I now have a heightened awareness of the condition of bridges. How could you not?

The Minnesota Highway 36 bridge over Ramsey County Road 51. (Shot taken through a dirty windshield, thus the spots on the image.)

The Minnesota Highway 36 bridge over Ramsey County Road 51. (Shot taken through a dirty windshield, thus the spots on the image.)

So, when my husband and I exited Minnesota State Highway 36 to Lexington Avenue/Ramsey County Road 51 not long after crossing the 35W bridge, we nearly simultaneously noted the condition of the highway 36 bridge. Now I’m sure inspectors have checked the bridge for structural safety. But to the untrained eye, rust and crumbling concrete raise concern.

Tell me, what holds fast in your memory about the 35W bridge collapse and did that tragedy impact how you view bridges?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

About these ads
 

20 Responses to “How the 35W bridge collapse changed my view of bridges”

  1. Dan Traun Says:

    I remember that day well. I traveled across the bridge only hours before it collapsed. American infrastructure is in trouble…bridges especially. http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    My brother is a civil engineer and many of his projects over the years have been working on bridges in Ohio—-I am always amazed at the structures and how they are engineered . My favorites are the multi leveled ones that appear to be like spaghetti but are much more organized and structured. I do remember the collapse and just being glued to the television wondering how many lives were going to be changed forever because of the tragedy.

    • It’s one of those moments imprinted upon our collective memories.

      I remember phoning my eldest, who was working for the summer with Youth Works in West Virginia, and her breaking down. There was something about being a Minnesotan on that day that pulled us all together to grieve.

  3. I was not living in MN at the time, but I remember coming home and turning on the news and my heart just sank for the people involved. My husband’s co-workers made it across the bridge minutes before it collapsed. I remember waiting to hear for days if anyone we knew was involved. It is something that should not have happened and that bridge is a main commuting bridge. I am like you in that I do not care for the bridges in MN when I lived there. My fear was going into the water while in a vehicle. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Weekend :)

  4. I’m from a neighboring state but I distinctly remember watching the news absolutely horrified. I will never forget those new clips.

  5. treadlemusic Says:

    I’ve put off commenting for a bit cuz this is a very thought provoking memory. You’re right……the motorists were just performing their “dailies” and an acute ‘interruption!!! And this, not way on the East, or West, Coast but a mere 150 miles to the north in an area I used to call ‘home’!!! I, like you, don’t like bridges because of the height “thing”. I would close my eyes (as a child) when my father would take the route to the West Side (of St. Paul) which meant crossing the “High Bridge”!! Irrational??? Possibly, but buoyed by the above memory of that bridge of more recent construction that ‘failed’ and to another newer bridge in Mpls. that, because of a design flaw(?) cannot have heavy trucks on it!!!! There are dozens of bridges throughout MN that are in desperate need of repair/replacement!!! Yes, food for thought for sure.

  6. hotlyspiced Says:

    I remember reading a post you did about a year ago on this bridge collapse. I hadn’t heard of it so I googled and read up on it. Such a shocking tragedy and so frightening for all involved. I’m glad Garrett recovered and has published a book on his experience xx

  7. Jackie Says:

    With a Son, brother, sister and nephew living in the Twin Ciites it was a bit scary. I was at Target when my brother called me…. ” Hi jackie, how are you, Have you heard from Brice? Me: “No, why? Well the 35W bridge just collapsed and I have had contact with everyone except Brice, just checking if you’ve heard from him. My heart was now in my throat! I feel a bit panicked since this is the 1st I’d heard of the collapse. as my brother was speaking with me he said just a minute, someone is trying to call me…. It was from Brice, whew! I was so relieved, I think I cried. I have a heightened awareness of bridges now, dont really like going across or under them.

    • Oh, Jackie, what a heart-rendering personal moment you’ve shared here. I cannot imagine the panic that gripped you when your brother called. I am so thankful your Brice was OK and that he called when he did. And then you think of all those families who lost loved ones and your heart just breaks. Just breaks.

  8. Thread crazy Says:

    While we live way south of you all, I do so remember that day – the news and seeing all the horror that had transpired. All we could do was say a prayer for all the victims involved. I know Texas, like other states, has taken steps to review and fix bridges but they have a long ways to go….

  9. cheryl schrader Says:

    My son and brother were very close to being on that bridge that day. They both work for PCI the construction company that was working on that bridge. My son was on that project but taken away for another project early that morning and my brother had a change of plans. I think we all need to think about the state of our infrastructure in this country when we cast our ballot this fall. The states people who are willing to invest in our infrastructure get my vote. I don’t much care for falling bridges.

    • Oh, Cheryl, that is way too close for comfort, to read that two who you love dearly were almost there when the bridge fell. It does make you stop and think. Thank you for sharing this personal connection and your thoughts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,065 other followers