Stumbling into a life-and-death situation

Sean helps bridge victim
Ordinary citizens became first responders, risking their own safety to help others get off the bridge. Sean McLoughlin is pictured in the foreground on the right-hand side helping a woman down from the wreckage
Courtesy of Noah Kunin

Wednesday evening, heading home from work down River Road, which is a lovely way to snake through the Cities because you can get from south Minneapolis to my neighborhood hitting all of two stoplights, the road traveling under all the bridges over the river.

It was hot, and I wanted something cold to drink so I stopped at the Birchwood Cafe. (The food is good at the Birchwood, but the service is very counter-culture.) Wednesday it was especially slow, and after a long sweaty day I was cranky by the time someone got around to asking me which orange soda I wanted. "Buddy's". It came out my mouth drawn and tight, kind of the way Clint Eastwood says "Lucky". My way of letting the pierced girl behind the counter know I was ready to get out the door.

My windows were up because the AC was on, and as I neared downtown I saw a lot of smoke traveling down the river.

"Fire", was my first thought.

Then there were a few cars stopped along the road. When I reached the cars, I saw a huge piece of concrete sitting on the road.

I got out of my car and walked closer, seeing metal laying across the river bank.

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At first I thought it was the Tenth Street bridge that fell because it's old, but then I realized that it would be the bridge closer to me, not further away.

"Is that 35W?" I said to a guy standing there.

"I think it's 94," he said.

I knew he was completely wrong.

It was really quiet. No sirens blaring. No cops or fire department people. The stillness made it feel like it wasn't that big a deal, like no one was bothering to respond.

About half a dozen people were around, several calling on cell phones, and one man stood at the curb calling down to people on the section of bridge sitting in the river.

"IS ANYONE IN THE WATER?" he yelled several times.

People were walking around on the bridge deck that layed across the water, and one person held their hands up as to say, "I don't know."

Further down the bank was a fence, and I figured I could climb that and see better.

There were cars sitting on a section of bridge that fell over the fence. Someone must be in those cars, I thought, and they were either hurt or wanted to get down.

From the fence, I hoisted myself up on some green metal. It felt sturdy. Having done construction demolition, I have a feel for when a structure is loose or solid, and I just used my intuition.

Later, on the news, other people said the bridge was creaking and they heard rivets popping. Where I was, none of that was going on.

Two cars sat on the green trusses, a red sedan and a silver hatchback with the spare tire connected to the back door. No one was in the red car, but there was a young girl (18-24, maybe) in the silver car.

"Are you okay?" I said.

Yeah," she said.

"Do you want to get down?"

"Yeah."

There was relief in her voice.

I talked her through climbing out the door. I worked my way to the back of the car and grabbed her arm. There were two metal beams parallel to each other that ran from under her car to some concrete were we could climb down.

I asked her if anyone was in the other car, and she said they had left already. My first thought was that it was kind of sh**ty to leave her there.

I walked along one beam and she walked on the other, me holding her by the arm. Her other hand held a small black purse to her chest. She was shaking and wearing flip-flops, but she seemed to do okay getting across. By the time we got to the concrete, another man was at the bottom. I climbed down and we both grabbed her and lifted her to the grass.

From where I stood, I could look up at a big slab of road at a forty-five degree angle with cars "parked" on it. The calm quiet and the fact that cars were sitting on their wheels, engines shut off, also gave the impression that it was a sort-of orderly almost "orchestrated" collapse.

Giving a helping hand
Sean McLoughlin (bottom left) helps two collapse victims climb over the remains of the I-35w bridge, while a cyclist gives assistance just above.
Courtesy of Noah Kunin

Further up the bank, some people were sliding down an enbankment of concrete. Me and the other man moved up to them.

The first woman climbed down on her own. I climbed up partway, but that was really not of much use. Moving back to the bottom of the sloped concrete, I waited for people to come down.

One woman started down and lost her balance. An embarrassed smile came over her face, and she said, "I'm doing this on my butt."

"Whatever works is good," I said.

I tried to sound calm, like I do this all the time.

A man wearing shorts stood at the top and he said that the young people and the old should go first. I noticed he didn't say, "women and children", that he was being politically correct and very Minnesotan.

Another woman started down and said, apologetically, "I'm old and heavy."

Let that go, I thought.

Instead I said, "I got you."

Finally, I started hearing sirens.

The guy that was with me told me his name was Ray, and that he lived in the apartment building beside the bridge and saw it go down.

One woman said, as we helped her to the ground, that it had dropped slowly. That made sense to me, since the cars were still sitting on the bridge.

Firemen started walking down the embankment, yelling "Get back!" and waving their arms.

"F**k you," I thought, "I was here first."

They helped the last two people off.

The man in the shorts said that everyone was off that section.

When the (fire department) said to get back again, I did because I knew they were right.

As I walked back, black smoke started billowing out from a tractor-trailer whose front end was smashed between bridge sections. I couldn't see the school bus. Later, on the news, I understood that the bus was right behind the truck on fire.

The girl who I'd helped out of the first car stood on the road, her eyes still as big as saucers. She seemed actually more shaky than before.

"Did you get hold of anyone," I asked her.

"I talked to my mom," she said.

Trying to be practical, I asked if she knew her license plate number. She said no then said her Mom would probably have it. We were close enough that I walked back and could see the plate from the ground. I read it off to her, but she didn't write it down.

I thought about my cousin who works for Allstate. In cleaning up all this mess, I was thinking, her car could get lost and that could complicate the insurance claim. Later, Mette and I laughed about this. I had no sense of scale at the time.

Lots of sirens were blaring now, and lots of bystanders were showing up. If I don't get out of here now, I thought, I might never. I got in my truck, backed it up and turned around. A crusier went by me, then another as I drove up River Road.

A little further, some cars were traveling the other direction and I opened my window and said, "The road's blocked." I thought about saying, "The bridge went down," by way of explanation, but I decided to just keep going.

I called my wife and told her what I'd seen.

"Wow," Mette said. "I don't have much to report now from my day."

I drove home pretty easily because everyone was going the other way.

Mick called me because he thought he'd seen my truck on some TV footage. I couldn't quite get across to Mick and Kelly that I had been there moments after it happened.

Talking to them, I thought for the first time that people might be dead.

It wasn't until I got home and started watching the news that the scale of the collapse hit me.

(There is a photo of) the silver car that the girl climbed out of. The red car is smashed into the back of her car, and from the shot it looks like if she had been one car further along the bridge she would have gone in the water. The next car toward the river from hers is sitting sideways in the Mississippi.

The next day, eating lunch in a restaurant with the news over the bar, I felt the emotion of the moment for the first time. It's interesting, the contrast between the experience of the event and the reporting of it.

I was aggravated at the time, wondering why there were no authorities around to help, thinking "How can they not feel this is a big deal?" But I didn't understand that I'd arrived just a couple of minutes after it happened.

The next evening, on my way home again, I was stopped at a light, feeling frustrated because traffic was thick and crawling. I thought of something I should write down, and I rambled through my bag looking for a pen. My hand bumped against the empty bottle of orange soda.

Pulling it out and looking at it, I realized that if I hadn't stopped for an orange soda, I might have been driving under the bridge when it fell.

Then I thought through it for a moment.

No soda, and I would have passed under with time to spare. But if the service at the Birchwood had been prompt, that would have put me right about in the bullseye.