"Oh good, you weren't caught on the bridge," I said. I heard stories of close calls. My letter carrier reported her husband had crossed the bridge less than 15 minutes before it fell. My neighbor said his young son was returning from a day camp field trip on a school bus and crossed the bridge about 45 minutes before it fell. I myself cross the bridge several times a week. Yesterday I might have gone that way, too — at just the wrong time — except for my determination to finish a project at work.
I was working in my office about one-half mile from the I-35W bridge when the structure collapsed about 6:15 p.m. I heard sirens, not unusual at our busy intersection just across the river from downtown Minneapolis. Then I heard more and more sirens. I looked out the window and I saw emergency vehicles speeding by, some towing boats. The street was clogged with an unusual amount of traffic. I checked the website of a local TV news station and learned that the I-35W bridge had collapsed.
After quickly finishing up a mailing I was preparing, I took my camera and set out on foot to cross the Third Avenue bridge across the Mississippi River to the downtown Minneapolis Post Office on the opposite riverbank. The time was now about 6:45 p.m. Bumper-to-bumper traffic crawled on the bridge. Sirens filled the air as countless emergency vehicles tried to rush by. Helicopters whirred overhead. I could see smoke coming from the accident site downriver. People were streaming out onto the Stone Arch Bridge closer to the collapsed bridge to view the scene.
Midway across the Third Avenue Bridge, I met two Minneapolis City Council members walking the opposite direction. We stopped to talk. Council Members Elizabeth Glidden and Cam Gordon had stunned looks on their faces. They're supposed to be in charge of the city, one said, but they felt helpless at this time.
I dropped my mail at the Post Office and continued down the riverbank to the pedestrian-only Stone Arch Bridge to get a closer look at the collapsed I-35W bridge. From that vantage point, I could see the fallen sections of the 35W bridge, perched at sharp angles on either side of the riverbank. The middle section of the bridge lay in the river. I could see lines of emergency vehicles forming along the riverbanks.
Hundreds of people were on the Stone Arch Bridge, talking on cell phones, shooting photos with picture phones or digital cameras. People talked quietly. Almost everyone shared the same thought: they use the I-35W bridge daily and they easily could have been one of the people crossing the bridge when it collapsed.
I continued across the Stone Arch Bridge back to the north side of the river and then continued walking closer to the fallen bridge. I saw a line of ambulances waiting to evacuate the injured. I saw emergency vehicles bearing the names of a dozen or more local communities: St. Louis Park, Vadnais Heights, Maplewood, White Bear Lake, Roseville, Dakota County — and more. I saw a flatbed truck filled with spotlights waiting to be deployed. I saw where one section of bridge had fallen onto a train.
Finally, I came as close as the police lines would let me get to the fallen bridge. I snapped more photos from University Avenue. My photos show the southbound bridge remnants angled into the sky— with nothing beyond. Photos of the northbound bridge show part of the bridge hanging precariously over the river. A car still stood perched just yards from the broken edge. Imagine the terror — and relief — that driver must have experienced.
People gathered at the scene shared stories they had heard. One man said he had talked to a woman who was in her van, went over the edge and landed on the roof of another car. Both she and her son, however, were wearing their seatbelts and weren't hurt.
"We heard the sound. It was loud," reported one young man who was playing baseball nearby at the University of Minnesota's Siebert Field. "It sounded like a plane."
Emergency personnel kept moving the police line further and further from the bridge site. The increasing darkness made taking more photos difficult. I walked back to my office. The streets were filled with people — all the diversity of races of Minneapolis residents was represented. I heard many, many different languages spoken that night.
By about 9:20 p.m., I was back near my office at the United Labor Centre and ready to head home in my car. Police began blocking off University Ave. and 4th Street SE as far away as Central Ave. They also began to shut down the Central Ave. bridge. Workers with a Minneapolis Street Department pick-up began unloading traffic barriers.
A Metro Transit supervisor leapt out of her car to confer with the police. She called on her radio: "103 to Control. We're going to have a huge problem here."
Steve Share edits the Minneapolis Labor Review. E-mail him at email@example.com
View Steve's photos of the disaster