Bridge collapse survivors push for compensation fund

More than a million
Brad Coulter of Savage, sitting next to his daughter Brandi, estimated his family's medical expenses will exceed $1 million.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Twelve weeks after the 35W bridge in Minneapolis crashed into the Mississippi River, many of the victims and their families are still trying to put their lives back together. The collapse killed 13 people and injured about 100 more.

"Both legs were broken. Ankles were shattered. I later found out my back was broken," said Mercedes Gordon of Minneapolis, who still needs a wheelchair to get around. It will be several more weeks before she can walk again. Still, Gordon says she's staying positive about the future. But her medical expenses are as extensive as her injuries.

"I can't even wrap my head around it," she said. "It's already in the hundreds of thousand dollars at this point. It may exceed $1 million, I'm not really sure. I'm still receiving services. I do have insurance. It doesn't cover everything, surprisingly. I thought it would."

Still recovering
Mercedes Gordon is still recovering from multiple injuries.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Gordon received some help from friends who organized a benefit concert to raise money. Lindsay Petterson of St. Louis Park got a similar financial boost from her friends and family in Lake Lillian. Petterson, who still wears a back brace, says she's in relatively good financial health.

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"I come from a hometown of 250 people and they held a benefit for me and raised over $10,000 without having to ask. They just did it for me," she said. "So, now, we're asking the government to help us in the same way, because there are others who didn't get that benefit and didn't have those people in their lives. So, that's what I ask."

There's only so much the state can do help victims heal. Ron Engebretson of Shoreview says a victims' disaster fund won't bring back his wife Sherry, who was killed in the collapse. Engebretson says he and his daughters, like many families, are dealing with money and emotional issues.

"In our case, Sherry was a business executive that held an executive position at Thrivent Financial who was paid an executive salary plus bonus," he said. "And she and I were paying college tuition for our daughters plus just planning for our retirement. Plus the fact that today we are going through psychological help to get through this."

All four members of the Coulter family of Savage were injured in the 35W bridge collapse. Brad Coulter is still on the mend from four broken vertebrae. His wife, Paula, is recovering slowly from brain injuries. Their daughters suffered less serious injuries. Brad Coulter urged state lawmakers to help the victims of the collapse pay their bills.

"After what my family and many others have endured since August 1, it's very maddening and disheartening to see such an idle response from those responsible for the upkeep of this bridge. The litigation on this incident could take years to resolve, and yet many sit suffering and trying to put their lives back together now. With the loss of our van, lost wages and mounting medical bills, our expenses will probably exceed $1 million," he said.

With the help of friends
Lindsay Petterson of St. Louis Park said friends raised money to help pay some of her medical bills.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Coulter could get help with his family's financial recovery under a proposal state lawmakers will take up during the 2008 session.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, says his plan would establish a Minnesota Disaster Survivors Compensation Fund, which is modeled after similar funds created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and California earthquakes.

Without such a fund, Minnesota law caps the state's liability at $1 million per incident and $300,000 per individual. Winkler doesn't know how much money is needed for the fund. But he says it would be a small percentage of the estimated $400 million for bridge recovery and reconstruction.

"The state really has two choices: We can be in the posture of defending litigation from the survivors and trying to protect our legal and financial interests in that long slow process. Or we can establish some sort of fund or some sort of mechanism to get swift and certain compensation to these individuals and help them address these problems. Then do our job as state officials in understanding what happened, why it happened and how we can prevent it from happening from the future," Winkler said.

Rep. Chris DeLaForest, R-Andover, says he's keeping an open mind about the legislation. DeLaForest admits he'll have a sympathetic ear after recently suffering minor injuries and insurance problems after a traffic accident near his home. But he's not sure if the disaster victims fund is good public policy.

"There are times and places for government to step in if in our subjective judgment we think it's good public policy," he said. "Now there are questions that need to be asked. I mean, there's a moral hazard here. Are we setting up a fund, are we encouraging people, if people don't buy insurance are they going to be better off? I don't know."

Even though DFL lawmakers say they want to put the compensation fund on a fast track, without a special legislative session they can't pass a plan until February. They'll continue talking about the plan at a hearing next month.