Thursday, August 2, 2007

The I-35W bridge collapse

I don't pretend to be a journalist, nor do I have any type of hard to get information. However, being a resident I have a unique position from which I'll attempt to offer some perspective on this disastrous Minneapolis bridge collapse.

For starters, I do appreciate the well wishes and concerns that have come in since the news broke. To answer the two most common questions, yes everyone I know is just fine and, yes I have been across the bridge many times. Interstate 35-W is the north/south means through Minneapolis. So if Becky and I go downtown for a dinner, need to get to the airport, want to make a trip to the Mall of America, or if I need to get to Walgreens district office, that bridge was the way to go. It was not part of my everyday commute, and the last time I was across the bridge was a week from last Saturday when Becky and I returned from our Las Vegas trip, driving home from the airport.

Numbers being thrown around have the average number of commuters around 140,000 that cross the bridge each day. For those of us here in the city, it's just a common, run-of-the-mill bridge that every one has crossed multiple times. That "it could have been me" feeling is hitting the whole city just because of how many people use it and how important of a road it is to the function of the city. While obviously secondary, the traffic flow interruptions will be significant. While neither Becky and I use that road on a daily basis, we do use those secondary roads that will most likely be more filled as people attempt to find alternate routes. The rebuilding difference between this bridge collapse and the one I more comically covered in the Bay Area is that the cause and magnitude are far more severe. Whereas a car fire cause a small section of the Bay Bridge to go down, experts have to figure out what caused the I-35W collapse, clean up a wider range of mess, and then build, not just one little section, but a whole new span.

The timing for the bridge disaster, as has been well stated, could not have been worse, happening right after 6pm during the tail end of rush hour. Less stated, though, was the traffic going into the city was substantial, too. A Minnesota Twins game was under an hour from beginning and the Metrodome is not more than a mile or two from this bridge. Earlier this year, I went to three games in three days, crossing the bridge approximately an hour before first pitch each time. So while northbound lanes were jammed with people going home from work, southbound lanes had a significant flow as well.

The game between the Twins and Royals is a story in and of itself. About thirty minutes before first pitch, officials became alerted to the catastrophe just outside the building. Conversations ensued, and it was decided to play the game simply to keep 25,000 people from adding to the confusion first responders already had to overcome. Reports have many of those in attendance unaware of the incident until the jumbotron began posting limited information and mandatory detours. Some were notified by families and friends via cell phones, but even that was hit or miss. The flood of cell calls overloaded the infrastructure and coverage was spotty at best. I personally had three or four calls dropped in the minutes after the bridge announcement. News coverage quickly asked residents to stay off their cell phones to keep open the lines for emergency use only.

Seeing the images both last night and into this morning, I'm shocked that death tolls are remaining in the single digits. Submerged cars, bent concrete, twisted steel beams, and bloodied individuals being carried out on stretchers are pictures a plenty. As terrible as the scene is, it could have been so much worse. The school bus on the bridge has been a popular story in the early goings as 60 or so children were teetering on the edge of the bridge (they were returning from a water park approximately 4 miles from Becky's childhood home). A few seconds either way or a different crack in the bridge could have made this so much worse of a disaster. Right next to the bus was a bread truck that caught on fire, causing huge clouds of black smoke into the sky. Other than that semi, I did not see too many more vehicles ablaze. Additionally, the highway seems to have split in chunks allowing people to have a chance as they fell straight down as opposed to some kind of angle that would have cause flipping. And, in my opinion, what could have made the tragedy unspeakable was the train the bridge fell on. A chunk of concrete crushed a tanker car, and thank God it was not some sort of poisonous chemical in its load.

Early helpers have received tremendous praise. I have seen several stories on how University of Minnesota students raced to victims' aid. The U of M is located on the river banks right where the bridge fell and as such, the students had the best access to those affected before emergency personnel made their way to the scene. But as for those rescue workers, thus far only positive has been uttered. While it's hard to reflect back on 9/11 and say there was a positive, it was a valuable lesson learned that catastrophes do happen and will happen. Cities need to be ready for the unthinkable and as such plans were in place for Minneapolis' police, fire, and EMT personnel to make things go as smoothly as possible under the circumstances. The city called in help from all corners of the Twin Cities, and I heard several sirens whisk down the road near my house, no doubt on their way to the bridge. The nearest hospital to the action is Hennepein County Medical Center (HCMC), a place where Becky did her rotations several months ago. Accounts have HCMC holding their own and doing what they can, and I would imagine Becky's former co-workers have some additional eye patients this morning.

The largest point of contention concerns bridge inspections. Governor Tim Pawlenty is stating that the bridge was inspected in 2005 and said to be ok. Twin City newspapers have found reports stating that inspections found the bridge to be "structurally deficient." These differing accounts will be the developing news story in Minneapolis for months to come.

In all, it's just so surreal to have something like this happen in my backyard. This wasn't some city across the nation or some movie scene. These are places and people that I see and interact with. It's a bridge I've used before and would have used again. The images are awful and efforts are tremendous. An unbelieveable sight.

Photos from wcco and kare11


CHCgirl said...

Excellent post. I didn't want to bother you, but its good to hear you're ok and your perspective.

Jan said...

We are so blessed that you are all OK!! (Thanks for the phone call.) I am also amazed as this could have been so much worse. At times like this, the very best in people becomes evident. The news reports of the people who jumped into the water or risked their lives to venture onto the unstable bridge to help others was awe inspiring.

Anonymous said...

this was a good post. glad to hear everyone you know is ok. it's crazy. experiencing a catastrophic tragedy in your city is so surreal. i feel like there is more i'd like to respond, but i have no idea what it is i want to say.