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First published August 8, 2007

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: Reflections

by Stephen Wilbers


Ever since the August 1 collapse of the I-35W bridge last week, I've been calling and emailing out-of-town friends to assure them that my family and I are all right. But like so many people in our city (and beyond), I'm deeply troubled by what happened, so I wrote down some of what I was thinking and feeling. Here are my thoughts:
Last Wednesday afternoon I left for a sailing trip along the Canadian shore of Lake Superior. On my way to Thunder Bay my friend Hal and I crossed over the I-35W bridge just 75 minutes before it collapsed into the Mississippi River, and now I've come home to a city that is different from the one I left.
There are too many emotional and psychological dimensions to this unfolding catastrophe for me to understand all of them. It feels disorienting to think that a landmark I have driven over and biked and run beneath for years no longer exists. I went for a run around the site today to see the fallen bridge with my own eyes, but even now I'm not sure I fully comprehend that it's gone. Bridges aren't supposed to collapse. We often drive over them without even noticing we're on them. We place our faith in the world we know, but sometimes the known world, to use Edward P. Jones' book title, is not the world we thought it was.
The other night at our National Night Out gathering it felt good to talk with my neighbors. Like them, I'm relieved that more people didn't die, and I'm happy that the 61 children and their chaperones made it off that yellow school bus. I'm also saddened by the tragic loss of life, concerned for our city, and worried about the consequences of losing a major transportation artery that carried 140,000 vehicles a day. And yet I know that, in the aftermath of tragedy, communities often demonstrate their strength and resilience. I'm moved by the stories of bravery and heroism I've heard since my return, and I'm thankful that no one I know died, including Hal and me.
Oddly, as we crossed the bridge heading north my car thermometer spiked to 104 degrees, then dropped back to 93 when we were off the bridge. In the two-lane bumper-to-bumper traffic on the bridge we passed close to a young construction worker on our left. I noticed concrete dust on his forearms, and I said something to Hal about how hard it must be to be working a job like that in the heat. Another construction worker, an older man, is still missing and presumably dead. I feel genuinely sorry for him and his family and friends, but at the same time I feel relieved that the younger man who drew my attention wasn't the one who died.
Coincidentally, this is a very busy and special time for my family. In just over a week, on August 18, my daughter Kate will marry Markus Benson. So life goes on. Despite the tragedy, there's plenty of room in our hearts for joy and celebration. It may not be a perfect life, but for my family and me it's a blessedly good one, and we're thankful for it, now more than ever.




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