Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Remembering the quotes of 35W bridge collapse survivor Garrett Ebling August 4, 2012

YOU’VE LIKELY SEEN HIM on the news this week, perhaps read about him in a newspaper article. He would be Garrett Ebling, survivor of the 35W bridge collapse.

I’ve never met Garrett, although we have communicated, first after my son was struck by a hit-and-run driver near my Faribault home in May of 2006. Garrett was managing editor of The Faribault Daily News then and showed such compassion and concern for my son and our family.

The following year, not long after the bridge collapse, Garrett and I would reconnect. This time I was on the other end, offering him compassion, concern and prayers as he battled to recover from severe injuries sustained when his car plunged from the bridge into the Mississippi River.

His fortitude impressed me then and still does.

Shortly after, I asked Garrett if he would share his experiences and thoughts with me for a magazine article. He agreed, granting me one of only a few interview requests he accepted. The result was a feature story which published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Garrett answered my questions via email given his jaw was wired shut or had recently been unwired, I can’t recall now which. That interview process worked best given his tenuous physical and emotional condition.

The story also included information and quotes from phone interviews with his rescuer, Rick Kraft of St. Paul, and his fiancee, Sonja Birkeland, to whom he’d proposed only four days before the bridge collapse. (They married on August 3, 2008, one year and two days after the bridge collapse and now have a young son, Cooper.)

Garrett’s responses to my long list of questions showed me his incredible strength, determination and positive attitude. He shared his excitement after he stood for the first time in these words:

This morning I stood up—STOOD UP—for the first time since the accident. I was so excited I screamed to my therapist: “Monica, look! I’m standing! I can’t believe it!” But with my jaw wired shut it sounded like “”Wonka, ook! Aye andin! Aye ant eave it!” For a brief moment I didn’t care that I’m muzzled.

Sir Edmund Hillary—the first person to climb Mount Everest—once said “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” When this is all said and done, I will be standing—STANDING—at the top of the mountain.

But I will not have conquered the bridge. Rather, I will have bested the uncomfortability, the uncertainty, the pain. I will have realized from which the depths I can rise up.

It’s the top of the mountain that puts us closest to heaven.

That last sentence, particularly, has stuck with me through the years. This week I worked the quote into a poem I submitted to The Minneapolis StarTribune which issued a call to readers for 35W poems. Mine, “Quotes from a survivor,” was accepted for online publication and was also published in the Variety section of the August 4 print edition. You will find it, and several other poems, by clicking here. Poems were limited to 35 words.

Garrett, the former journalist and now a small business owner of a sandwich shop, recently published a book, Collapsed: A Survivor’s Climb From the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge. Notice that use, again, of the word “climb.”

I have not yet gotten a copy of Garrett’s book. But I expect inspiring words from this man who has overcome seemingly insurmountable physical and emotional obstacles during his climb to the mountaintop.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling