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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When a person blocks information about a traumatic event from their mind, psychologists call it dissociative amnesia. Unlike simple amnesia, during which a painful memory is simply wiped out, in dissociative amnesia the sufferer still has the memory—it’s just tucked too far away for recall.
Garrett Ebling remembers almost none of what happened to him when the bridge collapsed, even though he was conscious until Rick Kraft turned him over to the paramedics. He was driving toward downtown, halfway across the bridge, and in the right lane, planning to escape the traffic by exiting on the other side of the bridge. The windows were rolled down on his red Ford Focus and the radio was up. Despite the gridlock, he was on top of the world. He had spent the afternoon staging a scavenger hunt at Como Park for employees of Great Clips, where he’d been working for five months. Afterward, he stopped at Buffalo Wild Wings in Roseville with some coworkers.
As he started home to Minnetonka, he called his fiancée, Sonja Birkeland. He’d proposed to her two days before and she was headed to the North Shore to scout churches for their wedding. He wished her a safe trip and hung up. He felt the road shake and saw the cars in front of him drop out of sight. And then his car was falling, nose first and to the right. Then, nothing.
“I don’t remember the ICU,” he says. “My family says I was alert, giving them the thumbs up, but I have no recollection.” The one memory he has is of a dream of being on a ship.
Both of Ebling’s feet were broken, as was his forearm and every bone in his face. His jaw was broken in three places, his lung collapsed, and his diaphragm ruptured. His seat belt severed his colon and somehow the nerve that controls his sense of smell was sheared. Doctors kept him sedated for two-and-a-half weeks while they worked on him.
“I remembered everything when I woke up,” he says. “I knew I had been on the bridge and I knew something very bad had happened. I remembered who I was and where I lived, but not the date.” Ebling watched YouTube to see the images his mind had blocked.
One Sunday in September, Ebling was in his hospital room—conscious but confused—when Rick Kraft stepped into his room. Kraft had been invited by the Vikings to a game, where he was presented with a jersey with his name on it. After the game, he’d decided to go see Ebling.
At the time, Ebling was on heavy painkillers and forced to squint through a pair of old glasses to see anything. He made out Kraft’s name on the jersey and lost it. “I was too emotional—I couldn’t deal,” he says. He later felt guilty about not being able to welcome Kraft, and to thank him for everything. When the two finally talked on the phone, Kraft said he understood.
The Saturday after the collapse Bernie Toivonen got a call from the MPD, which had him listed as a missing person. Could he come down to City Hall with his driver’s license so they could cross him off the list? He went, but the experience unnerved him.
Like Kraft, Toivonen wanted to know what had happened to the people he’d helped. He was most concerned about Linda Paul, the woman he pulled out of the van. The newspapers said she was badly hurt, and identified her as an employee of Hirshfield’s, where Toivonen bought most of his paint. When he stopped by the store the following week, he asked about her, becoming something of a hero to the folks who mixed his colors. They kept him supplied with updates and doughnuts until WCCO-TV’s Esme Murphy staged a reunion on the 10th Avenue bridge. Even after the cameras stopped rolling, neither Toivonen or Paul wanted to go home.
The paramedics revisited the site, too, but while the area was closed to the public. Tom Ward and Chad Stencel and the rest of their colleagues walked the length of the 10th Avenue bridge, looking down upon the wreckage, comparing notes, finally making sense of the hundreds of radio transmissions they’d made while trying to figure out how to get paramedics to the scene and everyone else away. Ward in particular found the debriefing cathartic.
After the collapse, Ward had stayed on the job until it turned into a recovery effort. After that, his next scheduled shift at HCMC was Saturday, August 4, when President George Bush was visiting. He woke up at 3 that morning in a sweat. I don’t know if I can do this, he thought. He went to the bridge site and called his supervisor and said he was too rattled to work. He didn’t leave, though, and later got to shake Bush’s hand. He was back at work the next day, but he was still so shaken that his coworkers suggested he let someone else take over.
When Lindsay Petterson surfaced, the first person she saw was a construction worker standing on a concrete pancake a short distance downriver. He grabbed a broom handle and motioned for her to swim over to a patch where the cement dipped to the water’s level. She grabbed hold and he pulled her out. “As I climbed out, I could hear the water rushing between where the bridge was split,” she says. “The water just rushed between and people underneath were crying for help.”
She stumbled backward. Great, now I’m going to end up in the river again, she thought. She stood there panting until her rescuer told her to go stand by the median. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll listen to you.’” There were helicopters and sirens coming from everywhere.
As Petterson waited, her back started to hurt. Not so bad at first, but after a few minutes waves of pain were radiating out from her spine around her rib cage to her chest. Her back was broken. Eventually, a bunch of people showed up in a boat with a backboard. They were wearing what looked to Petterson like HAZMAT suits, which puzzled her. “I didn’t know what they were for; I’m like They’re not wet. I’m wet.”
They strapped her to the backboard and moved her first to shore and then, because there was no way to get enough ambulances to the scene, into the back of a pickup truck along with another young woman. She was supposed to go out to dinner with her boyfriend so she was wearing a dress. The skirt kept flying up and she couldn’t push it down. “Finally, a nurse came over and pulled it down for me.”
At the hospital, Petterson started throwing up the river water she’d swallowed. She was terrified at first; she was still immobilized on her back and scared she’d choke. But the nurses assured her she wouldn’t. She threw up for three days.
When she got home, Petterson read everything about the collapse she could find. She watched every snippet of video—sometimes over and over—trying to understand. She went back the first day the 10th Avenue bridge was open to pedestrians, attracting a crowd. “I was in a brace and had a walker,” she recalls. “People asked me stupid questions: ‘Would you have used a pick if you’d had one in your glove compartment?’ They kept getting closer and closer.”
She didn’t get the resolution she’d hoped for, though. “I thought part of the healing process would be to see the bridge and see that it really happened. But even seeing it, I didn’t see it for what happened to me, necessarily.”
The rubble contained no clue to the central mysteries that gripped Petterson. How long was she underwater, and how close to drowning was she? Most inexplicably, how did she get out of her sealed car?
The Volkswagen yielded no answers when it was hauled out of the river. All of the windows—windows she’d tested even before she left the driver’s seat—were broken except for the sunroof and the back windshield. The trunk was open. Petterson is positive she landed several yards upstream from the bridge, but by the time the sedan was salvaged, the current had pushed the car up against it.
“I assume I went through glass, because my legs have all these little scars,” she says. “I was bleeding on my legs, and my hand had a big chunk taken out of it on my fist. I have scars all along my knuckles and on some of my fingers. It looks like I put my fist through a window. I don’t remember doing that.”
She’d like to remember, though her mother always tells her that some things are better left unknown. Petterson disagrees. She really, really wants to know what happened to her when the bridge fell.
Beth Hawkins is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.