Pawlenty signs bill to pay bridge collapse victims

Pawlenty signs bridge fund
Gov. Tim Pawlenty signs the bridge compensation fund bill into law Thursday, flanked by the sponsors -- DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler on the left and DFL Sen. Ron Latz on the right. Bridge victims and their family members were in attendance.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

(AP) - A close-knit coalition of Minneapolis bridge collapse victims -- some in wheelchairs and others still wearing casts -- looked on Thursday as Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a $38 million package to compensate them for their injuries and losses.

The ceremony capped their nine-month fight for state help recovering from the Aug. 1 failure of the Interstate 35W bridge, which hurt 145 people and killed 13.

"Things will never be the same, but it will be a good start," said Mercedes Gorden, who was bedridden for four months, has endured nine surgeries and faces at least one more to fix bones that were crushed. "Every day I think about the bridge. I feel it when I walk and when I stand."

35w victims
Jennifer Holmes, whose husband Pat died in the I-35W bridge collapse, listens to testimony during a committee meeting on the bridge compensation fund. Behind her is Chris Messerly, a lawyer who's representing a number of bridge collapse victims.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Ron Engebretsen, who lost his wife Sherry in the tragedy, said the state assistance will help in his own emotional recovery.

"By going through the process we have over the past few months, it really reinforces our belief in the state of Minnesota that we do the right thing here," he said.

Everyone who was on the bridge when it fell would qualify for up to $400,000. People whose injuries and losses were more severe could get additional money from a pool of $12.6 million. A panel of lawyers will determine the exact amount for each victim.

Some of the survivors who ringed Pawlenty as he signed the bill had tears in their eyes. Others simply looked relieved that the long negotiations had ended in a deal.

"Things will never be the same, but it will be a good start. Every day I think about the bridge."

State law would have set Minnesota's liability at only $1 million total. But sentiment was strong soon after the collapse to go beyond that, and lawmakers spent several months working out details.

"The course and trajectory of the lives of the individuals here and their families were severely and unchangeably altered," Pawlenty said. "We stand united today as a state to try to do the right thing."

Democratic Sen. Ron Latz said the fund was carefully designed to recognize the unique scope of the collapse while upholding fairness for other victims of government-involved accidents.

"Nothing we can do and nothing that we have done can alter for them what happened on Aug. 1, 2007," he said. "All we can do is come in after the fact and try to respond with money. It's a poor substitute. But that's what our justice system uses."

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are working to assign a cause of the collapse. A final report is expected later this year.

Their focus so far has been on a design flaw involving gussets, the plates that connect steel beams, and the weight of construction materials at vulnerable points in the bridge.

Victims who take a settlement must give up the right to sue the state and other units of government in Minnesota, but they don't waive the right to sue others. The state isn't admitting any liability.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)