I-35W survivor recalls tragedy in wake of Baltimore bridge collapse

Lindsay Walz touches a memorial
Lindsay Walz touches the I-35W Bridge memorial near Gold Medal park in Minneapolis on July 27, 2022.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

In the wake of the bridge collapse in Baltimore Tuesday morning, many Minnesotans thought about the state’s similar tragedy back in 2007 when the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145.

In Baltimore, the mile-long Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed into the river below around 1:30 a.m., after an enormous cargo ship collided with it.

The reasons for the two bridges collapsing are different. But the trauma is similar.

That’s especially true for Lindsay Walz. She miraculously survived a fall into the Mississippi River from the I-35W bridge more than sixteen years ago. And Tuesday’s events brought back a lot of memories.

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She joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about taking the first steps to heal from such a traumatic incident.

The following is a transcription of the audio heard using the player above, lightly edited for clarity.

Bridge survivor
Lindsay Walz, 29, pictured July 30, 2012, paints the back brace she wore for five months following the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

What were some of the first things that came up for you when you heard the news this morning?

Well, it was the first image that I saw this morning. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of going to my phone first thing in the morning and need to change that.

I am still shocked at the, just — it looked like a toothpick, you know, like one of those things that kids in fifth grade make toothpick bridges. And it just fell apart so quickly and really took me back.

Having that body of water underneath the span of bridge, I went straight back in my body to being under the water in the Mississippi. And couldn’t really even imagine what was happening in Baltimore this morning and who was there and who was impacted, but I immediately kind of went into their shoes in a way that a lot of people probably can’t imagine.

I can’t even imagine how your body reacted. Did you have somebody help you out today?

I think one of the things that often comes up in trauma recovery [is] they talk about flashbacks, and for a long time I thought that flashbacks were really just memories happening, almost like an image or a movie in your head. And some of that happened this morning.

But it’s also flashbacks can really happen in your body. And so as I saw the bridge collapsing, I felt that fall in my body and then I also felt the pressure of the water that my body felt on August 1st against my body, like my body just remembers those things in this very challenging way.

And I guess, you know, in a certain way, this isn’t a new day for me. I have these kinds of moments all the time and … I’ve had to learn about them … what it’s about and what my body’s trying to do.

My body’s trying to keep me safe and it thinks that the image that I’m seeing is, you know, happening to me and so I have to remind myself what is true and that I’m laying in my bed and safe in this moment. Luckily I have a lot of support. My husband is somebody I can talk to at length about how all of this impacts me and the ways that it’s impacted my identity and how I understand the world and how these events that happen can impact me again.

You broke your back that day when the bridge collapsed, and you have PTSD. How long did your recovery take?

For a while, I said, “I was in the hospital for five days and then I was in a back brace healing my broken back for five months. And then the emotional healing took about five years.”

And to some degree, I would say that that’s true. I would also say that the emotional healing never really ends, you know? And there’s always the impact. I will never not feel the fall in my body. I see an image, whether it’s an actual news story like today or watching a bridge fall down on a movie screen because that happens way more than people realize — it’s like the common action film trope.

But when those things happen, I’m impacted and I think part of the recovery from PTSD process is not expecting that that will ever go away but just learning how to process it and to feel your way through it when it happens. And that’s really the work that I’ve had to do over the last decade of my life. But it’s really hard to live life as a survivor.

How do you view your life as a survivor?

It’s a really interesting question and one that I continue to grapple with. I think there was a period of time that … there’s a meaning to my life, like I’m here for a reason. I want to use my life in important ways.

And I think that that’s still true, but I think I also have just been humbled by all of the ways that life happens to people, that people are impacted by tragedy and by circumstance in all kinds of ways. And we all find our way to make it through. I think that I think I’m constantly on a quest for what to do.

I think one of the things that I can use my life for is to help educate people about trauma. When a bridge falls down, that’s the first thing people will say is, “Oh, how traumatic.”

You don't need to have a PhD for society to understand that. But understanding the lived experience of it is something that I can help illuminate in ways that may be other kinds of trauma that are more private or more shameful, or whatever the case might be, can be really hard. And so to me, that’s the best way that I can make meaning of the experience that I’ve had.

We don’t really know how many people are directly affected by this tragedy in Baltimore at this point, but do you have any advice for what those folks are going through right now?

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot — that happened that right away when I saw it — I started to compare it. I was like, “Oh, at least it wasn’t 50 feet deep when our bridge collapsed.”

I think that’s one of the trauma [responses] is that we kind of count: What are the numbers? What are the impacts in that way? And the reality is that the six people that are still unaccounted for, their families, everyone who knew them and was impacted by them will have a long road ahead.

And I think that the more that we can understand the human impact of these situations, and that was a well traveled bridge that happened. The collapse happened in the middle of the night, which thankfully saved a lot of a lot of people’s lives, probably.

But that doesn’t mean that these events don’t have a huge human cost. And I think we should just be really, really mindful about that.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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