Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Remembering the day a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis August 1, 2018

This photo shows the opening spread of a feature article published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Casey McGovern of Minneapolis shot the 35W bridge collapse scene. To the far left is Garrett Ebling 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 and his then fiancee, before the collapse.

 

ELEVEN YEARS AGO TODAY, the unthinkable happened in Minnesota. The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed at 6:05 p.m., killing 13 and injuring 145.

At the time I was a freelance writer for the now-defunct Minnesota Moments magazine. Just months after the collapse, I interviewed survivor Garrett Ebling and his then fiancee and a passerby who rushed in to help. I wrote a feature spread that included shared images of Garrett and of the devastation.

 

Garrett Ebling’s book.

 

All these years later, I remain impressed by Garrett’s strength and determination as he recovered from serious injuries. He would go on to pen a book about his experience. Garrett is a former Faribault Daily News editor, the reason I originally connected with him post bridge collapse.

 

This image shows the collapsed bridge and the emergency exit door from a school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed. I shot this image several years ago at the Minnesota History Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Today I remember this catastrophe that profoundly impacted Minnesotans and how we view bridges. I remember, too, those who died while simply traveling across a bridge over the Mississippi River. And I remember those who survived, their lives forever changed.

 

Crossing the “new” 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

August 1, 2007, remains forever a heartbreaking day in the history of our state.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A look back at the day the 35W bridge fell down in Minneapolis August 1, 2017

Crossing the new Interstate 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

TEN YEARS AGO TODAY at 6:05 p.m. our perception of safety on bridges changed. The Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour on August 1, 2007. Thirteen people died. One hundred and forty-five were injured.

 

Garrett with his mom, Joyce Resoft, about a month after the bridge collapse. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2007 courtesy of Garrett’s family.

 

As news broke of the bridge collapse, I expect many a Minnesotan (myself included) worried whether a loved one may have been on that bridge when it fell. None of my family were. But Garrett Ebling, who had recently worked as editor of the daily paper in my community, was driving on the bridge. Among the most seriously hurt, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and more.

 

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 (his then fiancee), before the collapse.

 

At the time, I was writing for a Minnesota lifestyles magazine and, because of my Faribault connection to Garrett, interviewed him (via emailed questions) while he recovered. Garrett’s determination, tenacity, patience and faith impressed me. He showed incredible strength.

 

A section of the then now wow exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul features the 35W bridge collapse. This image shows the collapsed bridge and the emergency exit door from a school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

Since then Garrett has written a book, become a father and eventually also gone through a divorce. I can only imagine the toll a traumatic event like this takes on a relationship.

 

All the children and adults on the bus signed the door on display. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Today, on the ten-year anniversary of the 35W bridge collapse, I am thinking of Garrett and all the others who survived. I am thinking also of the 13 who died on a metropolitan roadway on a bridge that failed. I am thinking of the families. I am thinking of the bystanders and of the first responders who helped save lives.

 

Crossing the new 35W bridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

And I am thinking how this tragedy forever changed us as Minnesotans. With the failure of that bridge, we lost a certain sense of security. But we also gained an appreciation for each other and for the strength of the human spirit. We were a united Minnesota, standing strong in the face of an unfathomable tragedy. There is something to be said for unifying moments like that in which we forget our differences and focus instead on caring for each other. On August 1, 2007, we experienced such a moment. We were one Minnesota.

 

FYI: Click here to read several poems published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on the five-year anniversary of the bridge collapse in 2012. My poem, Quotes from a survivor, is among them.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I: Minnesota disasters up close April 14, 2016

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

DISASTER. How do you define that word? In a Minnesota Historical Society Traveling Exhibit currently displayed at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna, disaster covers everything from tornadoes to the 35W bridge collapse to the grasshopper plague, drought, blizzards and more.

I personally remember many Minnesota disasters—such as the bridge collapse; the Halloween blizzard of 1991; the 1998 St. Peter-Comfrey tornadoes; the 1968 Tracy tornado which killed nine; the drought of 1976; and the devastating floods of September 2010.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota's deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota’s deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

This week, Minnesota Severe Weather Awareness Week, seems an appropriate time to focus on the topic of disasters and to show you the MHS exhibit, Minnesota Disasters: Stories of Strength and Survival.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. This copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with the original copyright retainted by Lantz.

I expect many of you have been, at some point, personally impacted by a disaster. The deadly Tracy tornado forever put the fear of tornadoes in my heart. That southwestern Minnesota community lies only 25 miles from my hometown; I saw the devastation in Tracy. Decades later, a tornado damaged the farm where I grew up and high winds partially ripped the roof from my home church of St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta. I respect the powerful forces of nature, specifically of wind.

A debris pile on the edge of the church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof and brick from the bell tower. Photo taken in September 2011.

A debris pile on the edge of the St. John’s Lutheran Church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof (covered with a tarp here) and brick from the bell tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2011.

Elsewhere in Minnesota—in Belview, St. Peter and individual farm sites across Minnesota—I’ve seen the damage a tornado can cause.  I reported on and photographed tornado damage while working as a newspaper reporter. When a tornado warning siren blows, you won’t see me standing in the driveway looking for the twister. I’ll be sheltering in the basement.

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything.

I cannot imagine grasshoppers so thick that they obliterated everything.

As I perused the MHS disaster exhibit and the accompanying stories of disasters in Steele County, I realized the depth of loss Minnesotans have endured. The Grasshopper Plague of 1873-1877 recounts how locusts devoured even the laundry hanging on clotheslines.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

On February 5, 1924, forty-one miners drowned in the Milford Mine near Crosby in northern Minnesota. “For God’s sake, run!” one miner shouted to his co-workers. A warning like that floods the mind with fear. I’d never heard of the mine disaster until touring the MHS exhibit in Owatonna. Now I’ll never forget it.

Because I have extended family in the Hinckley area, I was fully aware of The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 which claimed 418 lives. To read of feet baking inside shoes and stockings from the fire is horrifying.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

As bad as those and many other natural disasters, Minnesotans voted the drought of the 1920s and 30s (the Dust Bowl era) as the “number-one state weather event of the 20th century,” according to information posted in the exhibit. I was born decades after that disaster. But, as a teen, I recall a Good Friday dust storm that blew into Redwood County. We were shopping in nearby Marshall and arrived home to find the house layered in dirt; we’d left the windows open. For hours we worked to wash away the grime.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I think my uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck to reach the milkhouse.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our rural Vesta driveway in this March 1965 photo. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse. I’m standing here with my mom, older brother and three younger siblings.

Blizzards, especially, imprinted upon my memory. There is nothing like a prairie blizzard that drives snow across open farm fields, sculpting the snow into rock-hard drifts around buildings and trees. Those winter storms of the 1960s and mid-1970s created all kinds of problems with roads closed, the power out and cows to be milked. Snowstorms of today don’t compare. And, no, I didn’t walk two miles to school uphill in a blizzard. Rather, in one particularly snowy winter, I rode to town on my dad’s cab-less John Deere tractor so I could catch the bus at Don’s Cafe to ride the 20 miles to junior high school in Redwood Falls. The bus drove sometimes on a single lane cut through snowbanks higher than the bus.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

Tell me, what’s your story of dealing with a natural disaster? If you don’t have one, be thankful.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a look at disasters in Steele County, Minnesota. The disasters exhibit will be on display through March 2017 at the history center in Owatonna. Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Every time I cross this bridge, I remember January 26, 2015

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Southbound on Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis.

Southbound on Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis on a recent Sunday afternoon.

6:05 p.m.

A section of the then now wow exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul features the 35W bridge collapse. This image shows the collapsed bridge and the emergency exit door from a school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed.

A section of the “then now wow” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul features the 35W bridge collapse. The image shows the collapsed bridge. To the right is the emergency exit door from the school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed. Everyone on board that bus survived.

August 1, 2007.

All the children and adults on the bus signed the door on display.

All the children and adults on the bus signed the door on display.

One hundred forty-five injured.

Thirteen dead.

Copyright 2015 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

 

Considering the tragedy in Boston April 15, 2013

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UP UNTIL SEVERAL HOURS AGO, I’d never heard of Patriot’s Day.

Now you can bet that I, like all Americans, will not forget the date two explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, killing two as of this writing.

As I watched news coverage this afternoon, fixated by the unfolding developments, the number of injured, or “wounded” as some newscasters labeled them, climbed. Twenty-three. Then fifty. Then one hundred.

This day, this event, this attack will forever sear itself into my memory, filed into that unforgettable dark corner of my mind next to the files of 9/11 and the 35W Bridge Collapse and Newtown and way too many other American tragedies.

On days like this, I simply want to weep. And I did.

© Copyright 2013 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.

book1

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