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.
Bernie Toivonen was working that afternoon, painting the addition to a home near Spoon Lake in Maplewood. That night, he was supposed to help his son move, but he wanted to go home, to his place in Minneapolis’s Bryn Mawr neighborhood, and eat first. He got hung up, though, initially at the job site, trying to find his glasses, and then by gridlock near downtown.
He was a few car lengths behind Petterson and Ebling, headed across the river, toward 94 West. He turned to his right, looking upstream at the Stone Arch Bridge, which paralleled the 35W span. When he turned back, the cars in front of him had dropped out of sight. The road started to swing up in front of his gray Explorer. He realized that if the asphalt rose high enough, the cars he’d been following would tumble down onto his vehicle. He threw the Explorer into reverse and floored it. “I wanted to at least do something. I really did think I was going to die.”
Toivonen had made split-second decisions like this before. Years ago, he lived up near Virginia, Minnesota. Late one night, he was in his car when he saw a train approaching the bottom of the hill he was driving down. What he couldn’t see was the ice glazing the roadway. His brakes failed to grip, so he took a breath and mashed the accelerator. “I beat the train by maybe 10 feet,” he says.
On the bridge, Toivonen backed onto a flat piece of road, and rode the rest of the way down without injury. When he came to rest at the bottom of the concrete U, it was absolutely silent. “I sat there for a few moments, then I got out and I just walked around my car a little bit and then got back in. I called my dad up. I told him that I was going to be late for supper, that the bridge went down. I don’t think he had heard about it. He said, ‘I’ll see you when you get here.’”
For a few minutes, Toivonen seemed to be the only uninjured person moving. He checked out the cars near his, guessed a woman slumped over a steering wheel was already dead, and kept going. A few people appeared on the embankment above the road, shouting and motioning. He looked where they were pointing and saw a man pinned under a steel beam. Two teenagers emerged from one of the cars that had been in front of Toivonen and moved the beam to free the man.
Toivonen followed the sound of a screaming voice to a minivan that had rolled over, blocking the driver’s-side door. He guided the woman trapped inside out of her seat belt and then out the passenger-side window.
For about 20 minutes, it was Toivonen’s piece of bridge. And then the scene was swarming with rescue workers. When a paramedic asked him to leave, his adrenaline was pumping so hard he just stared. “I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there and help.” The medic asked a couple more times. “He was real polite about it and firm. He said, ‘We appreciate your help. We have to take control of the work from here on in.’”
Toivonen went back to his truck and got his lunch box and a bucket of tools. He picked his way up the hill, stopping to give his name to someone from the Star Tribune and his contact information to a Minneapolis Park Police officer. She gave him a hug. He walked along the riverside until he got to the Stone Arch Bridge. There, he asked a stranger to take his picture with his cell phone, the wreckage in the background. He put the phone back in his pocket, picked up his tools, and started walking. He walked all the way to the intersection of Hennepin and Seventh Street, where he waited for his brother to pick him up. He was covered in blood, but no one stopped him.
When he got home, he showed the picture on his phone to his dad, who had dinner waiting. For a little while, they sat quietly and watched the coverage of the disaster on TV. Soon, though, the phone started to ring. It didn’t stop for four days.
In the two hours after the bridge collapsed, Minneapolis’s 911 operators answered 505 calls, 52 of them from the scene. The first was placed 36 seconds after 6:05 p.m.
“The bridge collapsed,” a woman screamed, “in downtown Minneapolis. There are people all over the place.”
“Ma’am, I need to know where. Give me a cross street, okay?” asked the operator, seemingly unfazed.
“Hang on. Okay, I can see Gold Medal flour, I can see Riverside Apartments.”
“Ma’am, I need a cross street. Are you on Main Street?”
“No, I’m on West River Road.”
Other calls were pouring in, and within 90 seconds, dispatchers had gathered most of the basic information needed. Ideally, 10 seconds elapse between the time someone dials 911 and the moment an operator comes on the line. In that interval, the computer-aided dispatch system has already collected information and begun the process of categorizing the call and calculating the emergency responders needed to be activated. The system had been upgraded just six months before the bridge collapsed.
When an operator answers a call, a computer screen displays the caller’s phone number and an address. If the call was placed on a landline, it’s the street address where the phone is located. If it’s a cell phone, the computer will retrieve the caller’s latitude and longitude from a chip in the phone. The first thing the operator does is verify this information.
She then asks why the caller dialed 911. If it’s the proverbial cat in a tree, she issues instructions. If it’s a true emergency, she assigns the call two codes: one indicating the type of incident and the other its urgency. When the operator hits return on her keyboard, the information cascades onto a 911 dispatcher’s monitor, and then onto any other dispatching systems the computer determines need to be alerted. News of an injury on Minneapolis’s North Side is zapped to paramedics at North Memorial Hospital, for instance, while one in the southern half of the city is routed to Hennepin County Medical Center.
If the incident is big enough, or requires unusual resources, the city’s human dispatcher swings into action. She might call on paramedics or firefighters from the county or from another city. A disaster like the bridge collapse triggers still another flurry of alerts to more specialized emergency responders. An unknown chemical leaking from a crushed train warranted a HAZMAT team; people in the water meant divers.
That afternoon, HCMC emergency-room doctor John Hick was at home in southwest Minneapolis working on an emergency-preparedness grant proposal when his pager went off. He ran out of the house and climbed into his county car, which has a trunk packed with exactly the kind of thing the government has thrown money at since 9/11—special equipment for dealing with people injured by the collapse of a building. Hick turned on his rooftop flashers and headed north. He was at the site within minutes.
Not everything worked so smoothly. Because the first 911 call came by cell phone, the computer logged the address of the incident as 500 Second Street Southeast, a restored warehouse a few blocks upriver from the bridge. Operators can override such mistakes, but the first few callers weren’t certain what had collapsed. Many insisted Washington Avenue had fallen.
Paramedics Chad Stencel and Paul Redmond had just dropped off a transfer patient at HCMC when their mobile dispatch computer crackled to life. Stencel heard his dispatcher order two ambulances—“trucks” or “rigs” in EMT jargon—out of the garage. Whatever was up, it was big.
Heading for the address they’d been given, Redmond drove across the Stone Arch Bridge, just north of the collapse site. Once they got far enough out on the pedestrian bridge to see downstream, Stencel looked out his window and realized the mistake. “All of 35W was gone,” he recalls. He shouted at Redmond, who grabbed the radio. “Be advised: All of 35 has collapsed. It appears 35 has collapsed all across the river.”
No one knew it yet, but the collapse had also blocked the frontage roads along the river that could get rescuers to the site. Stencel had been on the job just four months, but Redmond knew the area intimately. He veered down some railroad tracks and then a winding dirt access road. At the bottom, they realized emergency vehicles would soon clog the narrow path, making it impossible to get the wounded out. Redmond corralled cops and bystanders and positioned them along the road with instructions on who to let through.
Stencel grabbed some equipment and took off running. Trained as a cop as well as an paramedic, he cut his teeth working in Northfield and Texas. He was as bored as the next guy during the endless disaster drills that are now a standard part of first-responder training. But now, as he ran, he was relieved that he remembered how to take command of a scene. “It’s not like I thought, ‘This is how this is going to go.’ I just started doing the things I knew.”
The surface of a collapsed portion, when Stencel got there, was several feet above him. A boost from a bystander helped him up, and construction workers rushed over a stepladder they were using for him to climb down. What he saw stopped him cold. “There was fire. There were people everywhere. For about 10 seconds I couldn’t breathe.”
He could see slabs of concrete and rebar moving—shifting, cracking, popping. Ignoring the heat, Stencel put on his blue helmet. Good thing, too: A few minutes later, it stopped a chunk of concrete the size of a hibachi from crushing his skull.
He could see what looked like hundreds of bystanders running down the hill toward him. He turned to a man in an FBI jacket. “I need these people out of here now.”
The agent pivoted. “I need you off this bridge,” he barked at the crowd. “If you don’t go, you will have committed a federal offense and you will be arrested.” People listened.
Stencel turned to two young men who had been helping the walking wounded. “Go to the truck and get my blue bag. Tell my partner the blue bag,” he ordered.
When the collapse occurred, paramedic supervisor Tom Ward was finishing his shift at HCMC, preparing to hand responsibilities off to the next crew in about 20 minutes. He was responsible for some 26 paramedics in 13 ambulances around the metro area. When the call came in, Ward started ordering rigs to the scene. He called in mechanics and other support people. Then he jumped in his own vehicle, switched on the flashers, and started toward the river.
Ward planned to cross the river using the Third Avenue bridge, which would put him nearest the address on the 911 log. He headed north with a rig in tow, up Washington Avenue, from the hospital’s location next to the Metrodome. He didn’t get far before he saw a fire truck headed the opposite direction. He exchanged glances with the chief in the cab and guessed he must look as puzzled as the other man: Where’s he going?
Eventually, Ward ended up on the 10th Avenue bridge, parallel to the shattered stretch of interstate. A number of things became clear the moment he looked down. He realized what Stencel and Redmond were forced to figure out on the fly: The marked, paved roads leading to the site had been blocked. He also realized that spans of the bridge had been curled into half-pipes and ravines, separating emergency workers on the ground into a series of canyons. He and the fire department brass who had joined him to set up an Incident Command post needed to let people on the ground know where they were, a way of signaling their location. They decided to identify the sections, labeling one end east and the other west. But there was confusion because the bridge had spanned a bend where the river ran east-west. They finally settled on A, B, and so on.
Further complicating efforts was the fact that there were multiple landmarks near the bridge: If Ward told a driver to take his rig on the road by the power plant, would the paramedic know to ask whether he was talking about the plant upriver or the decommissioned one downstream? I’m overwhelmed, he thought. I’m not making good decisions.
As a tour guide, Charlie Leekley is ridiculously overqualified. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard Captain’s license, a credential that’s nearly impossible to get anymore. To obtain one, you have to spend 750 days working on the water on a commercial vessel.
Leekley grew up driving rental pontoons at his grandfather’s resort on Lake Vermilion. He earned his first qualifying hours working for family friends, before following a long-forgotten girlfriend to the University of Hawaii, where he ended up with a sailing scholarship and a spot on the catamaran-racing team. He was on the water for weeks at a time.
Anyone with a Coast Guard Captain’s license has been in high demand since Katrina, which wrecked the ecosystem around Louisiana’s Barrier Islands. The oil industry had over-dredged the area, leaving New Orleans with one less defense against the tidal surge that accompanied the hurricane. The Gulf states used to have plenty of licensed captains, but in recent years, Homeland Security tightened things up; a lot of guys with old DWIs on their records lost their licenses.
When salaries went up, Leekley headed south to find work rebuilding beaches. But in the summer of 2007, he returned to Minnesota to captain the Minneapolis Queen, a steamboat with a Mardis-Gras-on-steroids theme that ferries young families and seniors up and down the Mississippi on narrated tours. It’s not hard to get a commercial captain to pilot cruises on state waterways like Lake Minnetonka, but the river is federal jurisdiction. Most people who can run a passenger ship there don’t want to spend their days pointing out landmarks on the same few miles of shoreline.
Leekley finds it hard to pilot while reading a script, so he’s memorized two hours of Mill District history. Much of the spiel involves disasters that took place in the vicinity of St. Anthony Falls. The current eats at the limestone and sandstone under the falls. In 1859, two different bridges over the river collapsed into it. In 1869, a tunnel through the limestone under the falls collapsed, shearing off some of the falls. In 1880, another tunnel caved in. A century later, a Northern States Power hydro station on the eastern bank fell into the river.
On August 1, Leekley was captaining a private charter: a woman and 48 of her friends, three crew members, and a bunch of chafing dishes heaped with barbecue. The Minneapolis Queen was just a few minutes out of its Boom Island slip, starting to ease into the second of the two locks carrying traffic around St. Anthony Falls. Leekley was looking straight ahead at the bridge when it fell. When investigators came around afterward, they wanted to know what snapped first, where the various cars had been. But from Leekley’s vantage point, a couple hundred feet away, it all went down in a second. “It just kind of crumbled, all the asphalt. It shattered,” he says. “You saw the Twin Towers collapse? All that dust.”
Using Coast Guard emergency radio channel 16, Leekley issued the first mayday call of his 18-year career. Then he radioed the lockmaster that he was going to proceed into the lock and downriver to render assistance. “Oh my God, here I am,” Leekley recalls thinking. “I am the first one here—and the only one down here.” Serendipitously, he’d spent the earlier part of the afternoon under water, trying to fix the Queen’s propeller, so he even had diving equipment in the pilothouse.
“The lockmaster came running out at me, screaming, pissed off at me. ‘Get the hell out of my lock,’ he said. I backed out, but I knew I needed to stay there. So I backed up just enough so he could close the lock gates, right up along that retaining wall, in front of the lock doors, and called 911 and told them I was the captain of the Minneapolis Queen and was ready to assist at the Lower St. Anthony Falls dam.”
Soon after, the cops showed up, shouting about commandeering his boat. No need, Leekley replied, he was ready to go. But they were going to have to argue with the lockmaster, an employee of the U.S. Corps of Engineers with indisputable authority over who gets in and out of the lock. Leekley drove back into the lock, and then back out when the police failed to persuade the lockmaster, who was concerned that the Queen might be too big to maneuver in the short space between the lock and the bridge, and that opening the giant miter gates would make the current unstable.
Leekley kept the boat there for an hour just in case. Then he asked the woman who’d chartered the boat whether she wanted to continue the party upstream or receive a voucher for another cruise. Her guests were upset, so he returned to Boom Island. He was too keyed up to go home, so he took the foil pans full of slow-roasted meat from the party and drove them around to friends’ houses.
At 6:20, Kristi Rollwagen opened Minneapolis’s Emergency Operations Center, a narrow, windowless chamber in the basement of City Hall. The assistant director of the city’s Department of Emergency Preparedness, Rollwagen walked around the room, turning on phones and computers as she called her boss, Rocco Forte, who was on a stroll around Lake of the Isles. He misunderstood her message, though: He thought a small chunk of the bridge had fallen. Still, he ran the mile and a half back to his car.
If the call had taken place five years ago, there would have been no city Department of Emergency Preparedness to handle the catastrophe. Back then, Forte was fire chief and Rollwagen was his communications aide. Once or twice a year, Forte would go before the City Council and ask for disaster-preparedness money. The prevailing attitude in local government then was that preparedness was nice, but cops and schools were nicer.
After 9/11, Forte saw his opening. In March 2002, he dragged 80 people—emergency workers, county commissioners, Mayor R. T. Rybak, and the City Council president and vice president—to Mount Weather, Virginia. For four days, the VIPs presided over mock emergencies: a chemical spill, a pandemic, a high-rise fire, a perfect storm of multiple catastrophes. “We did quite poorly,” Forte says.
Point made. “When we came back, the mayor asked what we needed to be successful,” he says. Forte got a brand-new city department, and carte blanche to write Homeland Security grant proposals. As a result, an unprecedented number of people had roles to play on the evening of August 1. Within a few minutes of Rollwagen opening the EOC, more than 100 people—including Rybak and the governor—were wedged into the room, which normally fits 12 people. Someone located a 20-year-old television and rolled it in on a cart, but the focal point was the computer monitor displaying a live image of the collapse site, courtesy of the city’s new Wi-Fi network.
Problems and tasks were listed on whiteboards on the walls of the room; there were so many that someone took a picture of the boards every two hours before it was wiped and reused. The public-works department was tapped for lights and generators, port-a-potties, and a crane on a barge. The Police Athletic League bus was commandeered to ship officers to the site. Someone from the finance department started tallying the costs almost immediately, tracking every cent the feds might reimburse.
All survivors had been rescued from the scene by 7:55, 110 minutes after the bridge gave way. The EOC was up and running until the last body was recovered, on August 20.
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.