Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Remembering the 35W bridge collapse 15 years later August 1, 2022

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 newly-engaged Garrett and Sonja, before the collapse.

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO THIS EVENING, 13 people died and 145 were injured when the 35W bridge collapsed during rush hour in downtown Minneapolis. Vehicles plunged into the Mississippi River. Others clung to the tilted, broken span of roadway. Lives were forever changed at 6:05 pm on August 1, 2007, when faulty gusset plates gave way and the bridge broke.

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

Among those most seriously injured was then 32-year-old Garrett Ebling, former managing editor of The Faribault Daily News. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, severed colon, broken left arm and ankles, a spinal injury and more after his Ford Focus nosedived 110 feet, the equivalent of an 11-story building, into the river. That he survived seems miraculous. He spent weeks in the hospital, where he underwent multiple surgeries. A lengthy rehab followed. His life, physically, mentally and emotionally, was forever changed.

Within months of the collapse, I penned a feature story about Garrett for Minnesota Moments, a now-defunct magazine. Mine was one of the few initial interviews Garrett granted and I was both humbled and honored to share his story as a freelance writer. Prior to his departure from the editorial job in Faribault, we had connected. I remember Garrett’s kindness and compassion toward me after my son was struck by a hit-and-run driver in May 2006. I took great care in writing his story, recognizing that another journalist was trusting me to get it right.

Garrett Ebling’s book.

In 2012, Garrett wrote about his experiences and life thereafter in a book, Collapsed—A Survivor’s Climb From the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge. I reviewed that revealing and emotional book in which this survivor held nothing back.

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. All made it safely off the bus (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

Since then, I’ve lost track of the “author, father and 35W bridge collapse survivor,” as Garrett labels himself on his Twitter account. But I expect today, the anniversary of the bridge collapse, is difficult for him as it is every survivor and every single person who lost a loved one 15 years ago in downtown Minneapolis when the unthinkable happened. When a bridge fell.

All the children and adults on the bus signed the door on display at the Minnesota History Center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

There are moments in history that we never forget and, for me a Minnesotan, August 1, 2007, is one of those dates. When I heard the breaking news of the bridge collapse, I worried first about extended family who live in the metro. They were not on the bridge. While that diminished my personal angst, it does not diminish the tragedy of that day for those who were on that bridge. Like Garrett Ebling, the 144 others injured and the 13 who died. It is a tragedy, too, for those who loved them and for us, collectively, as Minnesotans.

© Copyright 2022 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

 

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

 

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