December 22, 2014

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`Last night, we risked everything,” Minneapolis firefighter says

By Erika Hayasaki and Stephanie Simon

  Los Angeles Times

 

MINNEAPOLIS — The river was slick with gasoline, dirty and dark.

Raul Ramos dived in.

There was a car underwater, a woman in the driver’s seat. Ramos could see rough chunks of concrete and a tangle of metal rods jutting up at odd angles, treacherous in the murk. A slight current pushed at him. He swam.

Above, the steamy summer night was full of noise and motion and acrid smells. Firefighters were wrenching open car doors with pry bars and attacking rubble with circular saws.

Ramos reached the car. He yanked open the door, cut the woman from her seatbelt, and kicked to the surface, cradling her across his chest. The police officer holding Ramos’ tether rope pulled them both to what passed, barely, for safety, a stable piece of wreckage near the bank of the Mississippi.

Ramos can’t say what became of the woman. It is not his job to linger.

It is not his job, either, to stop and think, or recoil, or fear. Not until he got home after dawn Thursday morning did Ramos let himself reflect.

He and his crew from Minneapolis Fire Department Rescue 9 had been among the first on the scene when an interstate bridge collapsed during evening rush hour. The call had come in at about 6 p.m.: Bridge down. “We were like, ‘what?’ “

Minutes later, they knew.

Arriving at the north side of the bridge, Ramos scrambled up a section of eight-lane highway, which was ripped off in the collapse and now pointed straight up, toward the sunset. From his perch, he could see people everywhere — it seemed like hundreds. Some lay motionless; most were working, deliberately, steadily, in striking silence, helping bloodied strangers to safety.

“It was almost like they were still in shock,” said Ramos, 35. “I don’t think they could believe what had happened. I know I couldn’t.”

Then he saw the car in the water, and Ramos ran for his dive gear.

 

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Up on what was left of the bridge, Julie Graves was upside down.

Moments earlier, the camp counselor had been riding on the front seat of a yellow bus taking 60 kids home from a field trip to the pool.

The ground gave way.

Her stomach lurched; she was falling; she was in free fall — and then she tumbled out of her seat and crashed down the short steps at the front of the bus. Her body had been flipped somehow; her ankles were shattered and she was balancing on her hands.

The driver, badly injured, yelled at her to turn off the ignition. The bus had wedged against a guard rail but the motor was still running. Graves, 28, righted herself; and tried to stand. It hurt too much. She stretched her arm out, reaching for the key, reaching until she finally grasped it.

In the back of the bus, a young man named Jeremy Hernandez was helping the children jump down out of the rear exit to safety.

Graves slumped in the stairwell. The bus had tilted sideways; it looked to Graves as though it might topple into the river at any moment. A fire raged in a nearby semi-trailer, sending out thick clouds of smoke. Graves could not move. When she tried to stand, she collapsed. Her orange shirt was streaked with blood.

Long moments later, Hernandez made his way to the front of the bus and scooped Graves into his arms. Bones in her feet and back were fractured. Shards of glass were embedded in uncounted cuts.

As Graves was being loaded into an ambulance, her fiance, Brendan Kelly, ran up. A fellow counselor had reached him by text message and he had rushed to the bridge. Kelly put his hand on Graves’ cheek. “I’m here, baby,” he said. She sobbed.

 

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His first day on the job, 13 years ago, Tim Dziedzic learned the firefighter’s creed:

Risk little to save little. Risk a lot to save a lot.

He couldn’t stop thinking of that on Thursday. “Last night,” he said, “we risked everything.”

Dziedzic, 39, drives the Rescue 9 rig, for the B shift, out of Station 11. They were on the scene within minutes. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “It was a little scary.”

The bridge had plunged into the Mississippi, but sections of it remained elevated — stretches of roadway balanced atop the shifting rubble. Dziedzic studied the chaos warily. Those chunks could come crashing down at any moment. The entire scene was an obstacle course of hazards: Shattered glass and knife-sharp metal, rebar, concrete and so many cars — cars tipped on their sides, cars flipped upside down, cars flung on top of other cars.

Other mottos Dziedzic learned way back: Don’t become part of the problem. Don’t put your crew in danger. “That went out the window last night,” he said.

“You had to get over the shock and remember why you were there. To help people. To do your work. You had to remind yourself, you’re a firefighter.”

 

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Julie Graves felt strong enough on Thursday to text-message her friends from her hospital bed.

Dziedzic grabbed two hours sleep, and woke up wondering how he’d feel the next time he had to drive his little girl over a bridge.

Ramos was at home, trying not to think.

“If you start thinking about it, you’d probably never leave the house,” he said. “You just do what you’re trained to do. You see something in your way, you go around it. You keep pressing on. You go.”

He might feel the trauma of the night a few weeks down the road, he said. For now, though, Ramos felt only fatigue. He was tired, he said. “Long day.”