September 18, 2014

Elyria
Clear
53°F
test

Commuter says bridge erupted before his eyes

 

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It was 5:40 p.m. when Melissa Hughes wrapped up work at the warehouse she manages. She piloted her red Ford Escort through the streets that lead to I-35W, eager to get home and see her 3-month-old daughter.

About the same time, 10-year-old Kaleigh Swift settled into a seat in the ninth row of a school bus, alongside friend Jessica Jones, exhilarated by a day spent at the Bunker Beach Water Park. As the bus inched through heavy traffic on I-35W, the children, many still in swimsuits, sang songs and played pattycake.

Down on the Mississippi River, a ribbon of water that curls under the bridges linking the two halves of downtown — and is all but ignored by the drivers on the highways above — Capt. Charles Leekley guided the Minneapolis Queen into the lower St. Anthony lock, giving the paddleboat’s 48 passengers a front-row view of the rush-hour crawl 400 feet downstream.

It was a hazy, languid Wednesday, the kind of day that Minnesotans relish after five months of hard winter.

Each day, 141,000 cars pass over the I-35W bridge — Minnesota’s busiest.

It is a trip that many of those drivers make day after day, year after year. It usually lasts no more than a few seconds — in traffic, perhaps a minute or two. A modern bridge is an engineering wonder. But a modern commute is a chore, a necessary routine, a thoughtless exercise that separates commuters from the lives they’re rushing to get back to.

Today, though they had no way of realizing it, a few seconds, a change in route, a pause in traffic would turn this most ordinary of events into a determination of survival.

Traffic usually is heavy on 35, often stop-and-go even on the best of days. Wednesday, it seemed to Hughes to be even worse than usual, with construction shutting down several lanes on the bridge. Still, she pushed on, knowing it would cost her only a few extra minutes.

Jay Reeves also decided it was time to head home, so he left his office at the American Red Cross downtown. He was heading to Rochester — a nearly 90-minute-drive.

At a few minutes after 6 p.m., he was still just getting started, driving down the West River Parkway. About 100 yards ahead, he could see the I-35W bridge overhead, arching over his route home.

Reeves was insulated in his own little cocoon. The music from the radio competed with the whoosh of the air conditioner. He couldn’t hear anything beyond the car’s windows. But as he drove toward the bridge, he saw something through the windshield that made his heart stop.

It was the bridge.

It was moving.

It happened in a split-second — an eruption of “moving green metal in a cloud of rust-colored dust,” he said. “My brain said, ‘This is not supposed to happen.”‘

Leekley, waiting for his boat to be lowered down into the next level of the lock, had the same reaction. He had run this tour dozens of times. The bridge was a silent river sentry. It was always there, a looming shadow. Now, as he stood on deck and look downriver, he gasped as it gave way.

Up above — or what had been above until a millisecond ago — Hughes’ view tumbled around her.

“All of a sudden, things were up in the air. Things weren’t on the ground anymore,” she said. “I swear I saw a construction worker in mid-air. Then I had that free-falling feeling.”

Kaleigh and her friends screamed as the road was pulled out from underneath them.

“I heard a creaking noise, and then we just started falling,” she said. “Debris was flying in the window. Nobody could see anything.”

What they did not know is that the bridge was collapsing, snapping, its 1,907 feet of pavement being folded and shuffled as if it was a deck of cards.

And then, almost before it started, it was over. And as the people in the cars and trucks and buses realized what had happened, those who could tried to take stock of where they found themselves.

It was a quiet at first. Then, they heard the screaming. From the cars around them, pancaked underneath slabs of cement and rebar, came the cries for help.

As Reeves pulled onto the shoulder and opened his car door, it was the first thing he heard — the children’s voices, screaming from inside the bus, its back-end poking toward the sky.

It was a horrible sound, and yet it was the most wonderful sound he could have hoped for. It meant that, inside that bus, the children were alive.

In her car, Hughes was alive, too — but dazed.

As suddenly as it plunged, her car had stopped. Now, she heard a huge crash as her back window exploded. Later, looking over the scene, she realized the noise had come from a black pickup truck that had flipped and fallen on top of her car.

“I heard people yelling. There was one person standing outside the vehicle just screaming in pain, grabbing his back and just falling to his knees.”

But she was OK. She walked down to the area of flat ground near where the bridge span now lay. She dug out her cell phone and called her husband. It was 6:06 p.m.

Meanwhile, Reeves made his way forward.

“Screaming kids are good,” he said. “That means they’re alive and full of a lot of energy. As a paramedic, that’s the best thing, I’ll tell you. If it’s quiet, that means I’ve got a busload of children who can’t help themselves.”

“My only priority was to get those people off the bridge,” he said. The bridge was groaning, and he was afraid it would collapse further.

People climbed up on the deck and helped the kids out of the bus. “Someone handed a kid down to me,” Reeves said.

They were the lucky ones, said Dr. John Hick, an emergency room physician and assistant medical director for emergency medical services at the Hennepin County Medical Center.

At 6:07 p.m, Hick was at home when he was paged. Eight minutes later, he reached the south side of the bridge, where the school bus lay. It was a hellish scene.

But, in fact, the injuries on that side of the bridge were relatively minor, mostly because the span was not as high above the riverbank compared to the other side, Hick said.

So he helped set up a triage point, went down to the river to survey the situation, and then went to the north side after about 30 minutes. By then, there was little he could do.

“If you drop 60 feet, that’s about the same thing as hitting a brick wall,” Hick said. “At the time that I got to the north side, the only people who were still in their vehicles were the people who had died.”

Which makes those who survived feel that much more lucky.

Aron Dahlgren, a 23-year-old University of Minnesota graduate student, lay trapped inside his 2000 GMC Sierra, the vehicle pointed nose down, up against another car.

He felt something cold and wet. It felt like blood. Was he alive?

Then his truck rolled forward. He realized the cool liquid was the iced tea he’d been carrying. He shook off the stupor and climbed toward safety.

“A lot of it’s a blur,” he said. “I just pulled myself out. I don’t know if I opened the door. I pulled myself through probably through the window. I remember my feet getting tangled in the seat belt.”

He had cuts on his palms and knees from pulling himself out. He didn’t need stitches, but doctors at the emergency room removed small pieces of glass from one of his fingers.

“The first thing I heard was a person in the car adjacent to me screaming. Other than that, it was quiet. The person was screaming. He said, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m getting out of here.’ He looked hurt, but he was moving. We were all kind of together and just took off. It was very quiet, and very eerie. I guess the sirens started 20 seconds or so after that. And then all hell broke loose. Before that, it was just quiet.”

“The image that’s stuck in my head is of the bridge collapsing,” Dahlgren said. “The signs just coming down. You could feel a rumble, and the next thing you know you’re free-falling. It happened so fast you don’t even think about it.”

It was fast, but that was long enough for the thought to cross his mind: A few seconds either way, and he would not be alive.