by Andrea Benedict
In these past few days since the sudden collapse of the I-35W bridge, the citizens in Minneapolis, Minnesota have experienced panic, shock and perhaps most of all, anger. The yet-to-be-determined death toll hangs like an eerie cloud over our city. Right now, patience is running thin, very thin.
As we individually and collectively try to find meaning in this event, there are still so many unanswered questions.
When this eight-lane, 1,900-foot (579 m), heavily-trafficked bridge over the Mississippi River went down, luckily, I was still at work. Normally, I wouldn’t have said being stuck at work made me feel lucky, but mundane hold-ups saved a lot of people from being on the bridge at that time.
Those of us still at work rushed downstairs; our company is just minutes from the site of the disaster. Once we got outside, all that could be heard was what sounded like one long, loud, piercing siren screeching. It wasn’t just for a few minutes, either; it went on and on and on. Hennepin County ambulances were racing madly down Third Avenue, police cars pulled out all the stops, and fire departments for miles around stormed toward Washington Avenue. The clouds were low and it looked like rain, but not a drop was falling. It was ash and fine white powder. Realizing that trying to press any closer was fruitless if not ghoulish, I went back up to the 16th floor. I arrived at my desk to find an email sent by our late night supervisor; it was marked “Important.” The 35W bridge had collapsed. Not just some of it, but all of it…
In an instant, the phone began ringing as if the end of the world had come. I had to get out. As I went to my car, I noticed a clearing in the low hanging clouds: a rainbow shimmered in the distance. It made me pause; it seemed ironic but somehow significant, given the horrific events that would mark this day forever.
After work I went to a friend’s house: how could I be alone right now? We watched, with the world, in horror; the footage of the bridge collapsing was repeated, over and over. We sat mute, stunned. After an hour of that, we realized we needed an escape. What are we good at when reality strikes, anyway? Of course: we popped in the movie “Night at the Museum!” Thank god for Netflix! I finally began to calm down and breathe normally again; at last my phone had stopped ringing.
At 10:30 PM, I got a call from a friend from work. Since I had already talked with him earlier, I decided to send it to voicemail. I had dwelled on the unthinkable enough for one day. But another call from a different friend from work followed his. Again, no, I’m done for today; I’ll talk to them tomorrow, I thought. Then came the text message:
No one’s heard from SS. His wife called; he takes that way to work. No one knows where he is!
I picked up my phone and immediately called back.
Our co-worker and friend “SS” (not his real name) had been at a Happy Hour from 4:30 PM to 5:45 PM that day. He had called his wife, to let her know he was on his way home. By 9:30 PM, she began to call the co-workers he hangs out with socially. Maybe, just maybe, he had only gotten held up. “God, I hope he had a DUI -- something, anything! Where could he be?”
Realizing I needed to be hopeful, even though I knew better, I said, “Cell phones aren’t working and traffic is still backed up in a stand still. He’ll probably get home soon. Try to get some sleep”. But no one slept that night.When I left for work the next morning, I was hoping it had all been a bad dream. No one talked on the bus; there was an eerie calm everywhere as I walked to work. Usually on Thursdays, there is a bustling farmers market. Not today. People looked dazed -- they were moving slowly and deliberately. When I got to work and opened the door onto our floor, I purposely walked by SS’s desk. But he wasn’t there. As I made my way to my desk, I noticed a significant number of people were out of their offices– no surprise. Then I saw the CEO of the company coming down the hall. My heart sank. This couldn’t be good. Minutes later, he called us into a lunch area and spoke to us as a group. We were about 70 people.
Many of you know why I am here. It is regarding your co-worker and friend SS. He did not come home last night and we have indeed been in touch with his wife. There is no word on his whereabouts at this time. In light of this, we ask that you do your best to make it through the day. We have a person on staff if you need to talk about your grief. Go home if you need to, do whatever it is you need to do. We will let you know as soon as we hear anything.
After he spoke, a man on our floor immediately asked if we would all join in prayer for SS. No one left. As he prayed, we all began to sob.
Going back to our desks felt odd; trying to make a sales call was out of the question. Everyone opened up their regular news websites and just stared unseeing at the updates, pictures, the personal accounts of heroic behavior, loss that could not be repaired, heartfelt pleas. And of course, there were officials telling Officials told us that the “recovery” part was over. We were now at the “response” part, which would take some time.
As I write this, three days after the bridge collapsed, SS has yet to be recovered. The news from the Red Cross is brutal: divers have not found him, or his car, which means he is trapped under the planks of the bridge, at the bottom of the Mississippi River. It may take up to two weeks to recover his body.
SS was just a regular guy who liked a fun Happy Hour and to golf; he even liked to dance. Recently married, he was barely over 30. On Fridays he’d wear a Hawaiian shirt to show his playful side. Waiting to hear about him must be excruciating for his wife.
We’re all dancing, unconvinced but clinging to the hope that somehow he’ll re-appear, luckily having caught an air pocket under the bridge plank. He’ll smile and say something like, “What took you so long!?!” The reality that SS slipped from our lives in an instant will be a constant reminder for the rest of our lives that we can never take our friends or families for granted..
While there was and now always will be repeated proofs of the disastrous negligence, as attempts are made to establish HOW or WHY something like this could happen, I can’t help but focus on the blinding anger I feel. (State officials were warned as early as 1990 that the I-35W bridge was "structurally deficient." Minnesota relied on a strategy of “patchwork fixes” and “stepped-up inspections” instead of replacing the bridge.) Knowing that the powers that be knew that this bridge was on its proverbial last leg and did nothing about it maddens me! SS’s death just should not have happened. None of the people who are dead, or injured, and all those who are emotionally scarred should never have been subject to such negligence.
Here our country is in a foreign war that the people are NOT behind, while our citizens at home die and suffer because our basic infrastructures are collapsing. “Re-build Iraq” -- are you kidding? “Re-build America!” Not surprisingly, the White House has responded that "If an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions" dismissing any culpability in this matter. On the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, where substandard levees killed 1,836 people and ended up costing the US Government 81.2 billion dollars, you would think the federal government’s responsibility to allocate funds in the federal budget to maintain aging infrastructure would be obvious. And While Minnesota’s rescue efforts have without question been exceptional, our state administrators and the Federal Government have put us on the world map for all the wrong reasons.
I can’t help but think about a guy like SS, a regular guy who wanted nothing more than to go to work, perhaps go to Happy Hour and then home to the wife he loves -- he will never do any of that again. Is there any comfort in noting that at least he got to go out on a rainbow?
About the Author
Andrea Benedict is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She works in higher education, has her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesota, and her Master of Arts from Saint Mary’s University.