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