Bridge Work

What I remember most about August 1, 2007, is that it was—until 6:05 p.m., anyway—an entirely unmemorable day. After coming home from the office, I went for a run, jumped in the shower, and started thinking about what I might do for dinner that night. It was just another Wednesday. Pedestrian. Predictable. Boring.

But then I looked at my phone. While I’d been out, I’d received calls from people I hadn’t talked to for weeks or months, from friends across the country, from every member of my family. Even my brother—a guy so laid-back that a shrug tends to qualify as a sign of absolute frenzy—had phoned. Twice. Eventually, a friend sent a text message telling me to turn on the television. And there it was: a scene of such acute devastation that it stretched plausibility.

In the hours, days, and weeks that followed, of course, we would learn much about the I-35W bridge collapse, as well as so many other things: MnDOT budgets, maintenance schedules, trusses and gusset plates. The term “structurally deficient” would enter the local lexicon.

Much of this was thanks to some extraordinary work by local media, particularly the staffs of the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. People in the Twin Cities like to complain—frequently—about the quality of their hometown newspapers. It is, after all, among our inalienable rights as Minnesotans, right up there with life, liberty, and harboring a sense of fatalism about the Vikings. But let us give credit where credit is due. Confronted with an exceptional story, the papers performed exceptionally.

But, over time, the public’s—and much of the media’s—attention has shifted, predictably, from what happened to who, and what, was responsible for the bridge failure. And yet, even as our focus on the actual event faded, many simple dimensions of the story remained unexplored. There is, for example, the matter of explaining what the experience was like: for survivors, for first-responders, for emergency officials, for ordinary citizens who jumped in to help. And: Given the scale of the tragedy, why wasn’t there more loss of life?

With that in mind, late last year Minnesota Monthly writer-at-large Beth Hawkins began talking to dozens of people who had been involved in the collapse: victims, government officials, rescuers, paramedics, doctors. Hawkins is one of the smartest and most tenacious reporters in the Twin Cities, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at the story she came back with: a multi-viewpoint, richly detailed account of what happened that day, particularly the 110 minutes between the bridge’s collapse and when the last survivor was pulled out of the water.

It’s a piece that is remarkable in scope and detail, one that adds an important addition to our collective understanding of what happened that day—a day that no one who lives in Minnesota should be allowed to forget, no matter how much we’d like to.

Andrew Putz