After the I-35W bridge collapsed, every survivor was rescued in less than two hours. The inside story of how ordinary citizens saved countless lives.
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All mammals share something called the diving reflex, a primitive defense against drowning that’s triggered when the face comes in contact with cold water. It’s stronger in aquatic animals than in other creatures, and in humans, stronger in children than adults. Often, the reflex allows someone to survive longer underwater than they could if deprived of oxygen on land.
When receptors inside the nose and elsewhere on the face are submerged, the brain sends a signal to the autonomic nervous system, which orders the body to begin conserving oxygen. The heart slows. Capillaries close, restricting blood flow to the extremities in order to preserve oxygen for the heart and brain. Deep dives provoke the most curious response: Fluids travel freely through organs and other tissues, redistributing themselves to equalize and maintain pressure in the thoracic cavity.
In people, the diving reflex is most effective when someone is holding their breath. Eventually, though, carbon dioxide builds up in the blood and the body inhales involuntarily. After that, how long the reflex helps stave off death depends on a host of factors. There are stories of resuscitating people after they’ve been submerged in frigid water for more than an hour, but most people get just a few extra moments.
Lindsay Petterson has no idea how long she was underwater after her car sailed off the bridge that carried Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River. She can rerun the collapse in her mind like a movie. She was traveling south toward downtown Minneapolis, nearly halfway across the span, when a chasm opened in the roadway directly in front of her car. For a split second, she wondered whether it was the seam where two slabs of asphalt had been joined together.
Petterson, 25, had stayed late at her job in Shoreview, at a group home for teens, for a class on money management. She was tired but relieved. The exercise usually left the kids frustrated, the counselors fried. But this time it had gone well. Wow, maybe this year they’ll really get something out of it, she thought.
And then she heard a clank, kind of like a metal snap. “About two seconds later I was falling into the abyss below. It was just this forever-long free fall.” As her silver Passat tipped to the right and forward, all she could see was dust and debris. And then the right front wheel slammed into the riverbed. It was pitch black. The car was completely full of water. The windows were inoperable, the doors jammed.
Petterson unbuckled her seat belt and started pushing against every surface inside the car. At first she was methodical, but as her lungs defied her will, filling with water and silt instead of air, she started kicking and pounding. “With every gulp, I knew I was one moment closer to dying. I knew there was no way anyone was going to find me.”
After that, the picture goes fuzzy, dissolving into a series of recalled sensations. Petterson thought about the stories she’d heard. People who’d been visited by a loved one as they died, who woke from a dream knowing the ringing phone meant bad news. Petterson concentrated on her parents and boyfriend: Maybe if I will it hard enough, they’ll know I’m saying goodbye. Then, everything went white.
At that, she felt released. Am I giving up? she wondered. “I mean, nobody knows what it’s like to die.” She had the sensation of floating.
Petterson had no idea whether it was her body or her soul that was rising until she broke through the water’s surface, gasping and staring at St. Anthony Falls. She paddled in a semicircle, pushing away floating trash, until she could see the buckled concrete that had flung her into the river. She could smell smoke and hear people screaming for help. Others stood next to their cars, talking on cell phones.
“It just didn’t seem possible at all. It was like something straight out of the movies.”
RICK Kraft spent the afternoon of August 1 in northeast Minneapolis, fixing an Internet-cable connection. The woman who owned the home was having cocktails with some neighbors, all middle-aged ladies, intent on persuading Kraft, tall, solicitous, and handsome, into staying for margaritas. “We’ll make you a steak,” the ringleader flirted.
Popular lore notwithstanding, this kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to Comcast technicians—or at least not to Kraft, who was at a loss to talk his way out of the situation. His mother and sister were due at his South St. Paul apartment that evening, and he needed to clean the place before they showed up.
Kraft got on 35W at Hennepin Avenue, heading south toward downtown. It was a parking lot. Thinking he’d make better headway on city streets, he exited at Fourth Street. He turned left onto University Avenue and waited for the light to change. Suddenly, he heard a bang. He looked to the right, where normally the bridge would appear as an uninterrupted stretch of interstate, its steel trusses and concrete piers invisible from that angle. What he saw, though, was a car on a precipice. They demolished the bridge, he thought. He looked away to dial 911. When he looked back, the car was gone.
Kraft grew up on the shores of Lake Pepin, in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, in a family of boaters. His dad was a volunteer firefighter, and as a boy, Kraft saw enough rescue operations to know things could end badly. He’d always wondered whether, in a pinch, he’d live up to the example set by his old man, dead now three years. “I like to think he knew I’d be better rescuing than being rescued.”
He made an illegal right onto the northbound off-ramp and threw his van into park. He could hear people screaming for help. He vaulted over the guardrail, waved off a construction worker who was looking to borrow a phone, and picked his way around a downed power line. He ran alongside a train that had been crushed, looking for a safe place to slip between the cars.
When Kraft got to the water’s edge, he helped three people ashore. Then he took off his shirt and work boots, tucking his phone into one. He picked up a two-by-four and tested the water: waist-deep.
He waded toward a piece of concrete a short distance from shore, trying to decide who to help first. Two people were motioning toward a black BMW whose driver was slumped over the wheel. He noticed a woman on a pad of concrete nearby that was too dazed to realize she was standing under her car, which was dangling upside-down from a chunk of roadway about 10 feet above her head. He pulled the woman into the water and pointed her toward shore.
There was another car underneath hers, but Kraft was still worried the rubble would give way. If I go out there, is it going to shift, fall, go sideways? he wondered. “I was pretty confident there was no one in there but I couldn’t be sure. I yelled a couple of times and then waited silently.”
Kraft shifted his attention back to the black BMW nose-down in the water. All but a little of car’s trunk was submerged. A few bubbles were rising around it. He figured 10 minutes had elapsed since the collapse. If there was anyone in the car, they’d surely drowned already. A man in a red Ford Focus, meanwhile, was screaming bloody murder. Another bystander tugged at the driver’s side door, but it was blocked by another car. The seat belt was jammed, he told Kraft.
In search of help, Kraft waded back to shore, where two paramedics had just shown up. They didn’t have a knife, but offered him a pair of scissors. While Kraft and a bystander sawed at the seat belt, Kraft tried to figure out how the man, who appeared to have two broken ankles, had managed to get one leg, also visibly broken, out the car window.
Kraft carried the man to shore in a bear hug, stopping once to shift his weight because the man’s mangled foot hit something. He spotted a firefighter and yelled for a backboard. While waiting, Kraft tried to keep the injured man from passing out. “I started snapping my fingers at him,” he recalls. “‘Hey, hey—what’s your name?’ I asked him several times and then I realized I couldn’t see his teeth.”
The man’s name was Garrett Ebling. Every bone in his face and most of his teeth were broken. When he tried to answer Kraft, nothing but bloody foam came out of his mouth. Kraft was determined to keep him talking, though, and eventually made out his first name and hometown, New Ulm. Suddenly, the backboard materialized and Ebling was gone, whisked off to the hospital.
Kraft turned back to the river. A woman standing next to the black BMW was trying to get his attention. She wanted a backboard and a defibrillator. Kraft got them from the paramedics, but it turned out to be too late. He corralled some bystanders to make a chain between the car and the riverbank. When the body of 60-year-old Shoreview resident Sherry Engebretson was removed from the car, they passed it to shore.
By then, the area was swarming with rescue workers, and the din from helicopters overhead made it hard to hear anything. Police were asking people to leave. Suddenly, Kraft felt exhausted.
When he got back to his van, there was a crowd surrounding it. He couldn’t bring himself to answer people’s questions. On his way home, Kraft couldn’t stop thinking about Ebling and Engebretson. He wondered whether he’d made good decisions, whether he made a mistake passing Engebretson’s car for Ebling’s. When he got home, he called New Ulm police and told them one of the victims was from there; his name was Garrett. And then he sat and waited for news, like everyone else.