(I lay claim to being the first news reporter to arrive at the scene of the horrific Minneapolis bridge collapse, and it was quite by accident. I had never witnessed such pandemonium and probably never will again. That scene on August 1, 2007, in downtown Minneapolis, was a far cry from my quiet country boyhood in Deer Lodge, Montana. Young boys grow up to become writers, and writers (especially news reporters) tell the big stories. I wrote this story early the morning after the bridge collapse. It was posted on our website, www.startribune.com, with some prominence. Breaking news of the rescue efforts quickly drove it onto the back pages. I share it now because the memory of that humid chaotic night – stricken faces, screaming sirens and a twisted, fallen bridge — sticks to me like glue.)
By Kevin Giles
I left the downtown Star Tribune newsroom minutes before 6 p.m. Wednesday to head home. Traffic seemed light, even with the Minnesota Twins playing in the Metrodome across the street. I crossed the Third Avenue bridge and remember looking eastward toward the Interstate 35W Bridge and thinking how blue the sky looked.
On the north side of the bridge I took a detour through St. Anthony Main to get to University Avenue. Then I saw a huge brown cloud in the sky. Maybe it’s coming from construction on the 35W Bridge, I thought. When I had driven across that bridge in the morning on the way to work, dozens of construction workers huddled in the shade of their vehicles, taking a morning break.
Now I was going home, and like I usually do in the evening, I took a different route to get around congestion on the main bridge. When I got to where University Avenue crosses 35W, a handful of people stood staring south toward downtown Minneapolis. I looked to where they did. Cars sat at crazy angles. I saw construction workers in bright orange vests running on the bridge. When I turned onto the exit ramp that would take me to the northbound lanes of 35W, I called night editor Pam Miller. “Something’s wrong on the bridge,” I told her. “Maybe it’s a bad car accident. Something looks seriously wrong.”
From my vantage point I didn’t realize I was looking at a bridge that had fallen. But when I pulled onto 35W behind a few other drivers, we had the lanes to ourselves. I looked in my rear view mirror. Nobody.
Moments later, when I knew what had happened, I parked on a shady street in Dinkytown, the neighborhood surrounding the University of Minnesota. It was no later than 6:10 p.m. People were running down the street toward the bridge. Some swerved through yards on bicycles. I heard sirens.
I got to the northbound ramp onto the collapsed bridge, just off University Avenue. Up and down the street, residents tumbled out of big apartment buildings. They climbed onto porches and fences to get a better view.
Sarah Fahnhorst, who lives a block from the bridge, was one of them. “The entire building shook,” she said. “It just shook the ground.”
Roberta Henry was another. She captured most of the collapse on her cell phone camera. “Everything happened so fast,” she said. “I was so hysterical.”
Teams of police officers charged over a chain-link fence to get to the bottom of the bridge. Gawkers followed, soon trampling the fence to the ground.
Dozens of emergency vehicles roared onto University Avenue, blaring their horns. They nudged through crowds of onlookers streaming from Dinkytown’s vast neighborhoods. Nobody directed traffic but nobody was hit either. Police seemed consumed with trying to help victims of the collapse.
Near the bottom of the bridge’s north end, occupants of six cars piled like matchbox toys sat forlornly. Myles Tang, 12, fretted about his soccer bag in his bashed green car; he had a tournament that weekend. His mother, Angela Wong of Minneapolis, remembers the bridge parting right below the car and then they fell. A lump next to her left eye bled.
Melissa Hughes of Minneapolis, another driver who sat near the bridge nursing her baby, remembers nothing but silence when she climbed out of her vehicle. “Sound’s gone from my memory,” she said.
She’d been alone; her husband brought her baby to her.
Within an hour, thousands of people stood for blocks around the bridge’s north end. Hundreds of cell phones, their digital dials glittering in the twilight, were raised to the sky to photograph the scene.
Ambulances with chattering sirens came by the dozens. At one point they stood in a line, waiting for police to summon them forward. Firetrucks rolled in from Vadnais Heights, St. Louis Park and North St. Paul, among dozens of other suburbs. They came in stately processions, loaded with concerned faces. Black cars with tinted windows zoomed past, red and blue lights flashing on their dashboards.
Chris Kellner came running to the scene with some friends who live in Dinkytown. “It felt like an explosion,” he said. “We thought somebody blew up the Metrodome.”
Students from UM came in shorts, walking and on bicycles. Some of them from a campus church just up the street distributed water in little paper cups. Families came with strollers. Several tall women who looked like the university volleyball team came hustling up the boulevard, one of them carrying their dinner still sizzling in a frying pan. As the evening fell, the crowd became more diverse. People of all colors and income levels mingled, telling stories and comparing notes. It looked like all of north Minneapolis had emptied into a single melting pot at the bridge.
Nobody smiled. They were for the most part a silent crowd, showing reverence for the devastation they saw before them. For the crumpled cars they could see, for the dying and injured they couldn’t. And reverence for each other in the way that people reach out in times of need.
By 11 p.m. police had cleared most of the area around the University Avenue bridge. They warned people away with gentle commands and a liberal use of yellow police tape. Most of the people went home.
Soon, Dinkytown slept. The searchlights on the bridge never went out.