Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My thoughts after reading a book by 35W Bridge collapse survivor Garrett Ebling February 21, 2013

SOMETIMES, MANY TIMES, life is not as it seems upon the surface.

That summarizes my overall reaction to reading Collapsed, A Survivor’s Climb from the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge by Garrett Ebling.

Now, before I explain, you should know that I wrote a feature article, “The 35W bridge collapse: One story of survival, rescue and blessings,” which published in Minnesota Moments magazine in 2007. That story included information and quotes from interviews with Garrett (done via e-mail given his physical condition), his then fiancée, Sonja Birkeland, and his rescuer, Rick Kraft.

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 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. Photos on the opposite page show Garrett during his recovery.

Garrett granted a limited number of interviews, mine included, shortly after the August 1, 2007, collapse in Minneapolis, favoring print journalists given his background in newspapers. He had worked as managing editor of the Faribault Daily News. And although I’d never met him, we’d communicated after my son was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a Faribault street the previous year. Garrett showed a great deal of compassion toward my family and that meant a lot to me as a mother.

With that background, you can understand why my approach to Garrett’s memoir is more personal than that of the average reader. And, for that reason, my reaction is more emotional. Reading of his ongoing struggles, I could hardly believe this was the same positive and determined man I’d interviewed shortly after the bridge collapse.

But I expect, at the time of our 2007 interview, Garrett was in pure recovery mode, so focused on his physical recovery that he had no idea of the emotional struggles ahead. And I’ll be honest here, I’d not considered either how plunging from a bridge (in your car) the equivalent of an 11-story building into a river would impact every aspect of your life. Garrett’s injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, were numerous, his survival termed miraculous by many. Every facial bone plate shattered in an impact compared to hitting a brick wall at 100 mph.

Garrett with his mom, Joyce Resoft, about a month after the bridge collapse.

Garrett with his mom, Joyce Resoft, about a month after the bridge collapse. Photo courtesy of Garrett Ebling.

In his book, which also shares the recovery stories of several other bridge collapse survivors, Garrett holds nothing back. Nothing. Upon seeing himself in a mirror for the first time, he writes:

This man’s face, unlike mine, was swollen and quite asymmetrical. One eyelid drooped far lower than the other. One pupil remained fully dilated. There were gashes and scabs around his brow. His temples were sunken in. His teeth were either missing or horribly out of place. This man should be living up in Notre Dame’s bell tower.

Even prior to viewing himself for the first time after the collapse, the then 32-year-old realized: “I might be fixable, but I wouldn’t ever be the same.” That declaration, in the context of the book, applies as much to his physical appearance as to his personality.

Throughout the book, survivor after survivor reveals issues related to diagnoses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as new fears, anger, loss of control, lack of joy in life, challenges in relationships… Prior to reading Garrett’s book, I’d only considered PTSD an issue of soldiers, like my father, who’d served in war. How ridiculously limited I was in that thinking.

Garrett’s book will catch you like that, revealing the obvious which you may not have considered. Take his story about a Halloween night out in a downtown Minneapolis bar with his buddies. A friend warned him about a young man wearing a 35W bridge collapse costume. Garrett writes of the incident:

I approached him. I acted as though I couldn’t figure out his costume…asked him who he was supposed to be. ‘I’m the 35W Bridge collapse,’ he said in an almost proud way, like he’d just thought of the most clever Halloween costume ever. I pointed to a Matchbox school bus glued to his chest. ‘You know, thirteen people died and dozens more had their lives forever changed on that bridge just two years ago—and you’re looking at one of them.’

That’s one powerful story, not only for exposing the insensitivity of a young man, but also for revealing how we oftentimes fail to understand that even the most ordinary aspects of life—like an evening out—can be impacted by a disaster.

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Garrett’s book shows, in very personal ways via the stories of survivors Lindsey, Kim (that bus driver), Paula, Omar, Erica and others, the individuals behind the 35W Bridge collapse. That enables the reader to connect in a world where disasters are often lumped into numbers and places and quickly forgotten when the next disaster occurs.

I have never forgotten the 35W Bridge collapse. I doubt any Minnesotan could. When disaster happens that close, affects people who were simply commuting home from work, as Garrett and Lindsey were; driving a bus load of kids back from a day at the waterpark, as Kim was; or heading out for or a celebratory dinner with family as Paula, her husband and two daughters were, you realize how life can change in an instant, for any of us.

Only four days before the collapse, Garrett proposed marriage to Sonja. These should have been among the happiest days of his life, as should have been his marriage on the one-year anniversary of the bridge collapse. But Garrett reveals, much to my surprise, that he felt no joy on his August 1, 2008, wedding day, simply pasting a smile on his face, his spirit crushed.

That deeply personal revelation—and Garrett shares even more about the difficulties in his relationship—shocked me. What had happened to the couple I’d interviewed in 2007? Sonja, at the time a church youth director, told me then:

This could be the blessing of our life. God has done fantastic things out of bad things. The seeds have been planted. If we can get through this, we can get through anything.

Sonja couldn’t have known. And I never would have predicted that this couple, rock hard in their faith, would struggle to keep their relationship together. This, for me, proved the toughest part of the book to read. Eventually they worked it out and saved their marriage.

Sonja and Garrett, with their son, Cooper.

Sonja and Garrett, with their son, Cooper. Photo courtesy of Garrett Ebling.

For Garrett, the pivotal point in his recovery comes in June 2010 as he prays to God:

…I asked you to take the reins. But what I really should have asked of you was to place your hands over mine and guide me, rather than allow me to walk away and demand you do the work.

What a powerful revelation. I’d encourage you to read Collapsed: A Survivor’s Climb from the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge. You’ll never view a disaster in quite the same way. You’ll appreciate all that survivors of a disaster endure. And you will realize, as did Sonja without knowing, the possibilities: “If we can get through this, we can get through anything.”

FYI: Click here for more information about Garrett Ebling’s book.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book excerpts quoted with permission from Garrett Ebling