Plans still murky for marking bridge collapse anniversary

35W bridge construction
Construction on the Interstate 35W bridge is going faster than expected, and the span could be complete by mid-September.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

(AP) - At his wife's insistence, Karge Olsen put in for time off Aug. 1 -- a year to the date when his Jeep Compass crashed down with the Interstate 35W bridge and left him with cracked vertebrae, torn ligaments and a broken foot.

But three weeks out, his plans for that Friday are unsettled. So are those of other survivors and people affected by the collapse who have yet to learn what the city and state have in store for the approaching anniversary.

"I really hope they do something other than just a simple acknowledgment," Olsen said, although he's not sure what exactly he wants in a remembrance ceremony. "You see those kind of things on the news on other events. It's a different thing to think about on the inside looking out."

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Added Chris Messerly, an attorney in a pro bono consortium representing 115 people: "I have not heard one word from the state. Typically our clients call me whenever there is something up."

The offices of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak are working together on an Aug. 1 plan, said Brian McClung, a spokesman for the governor. The preparation has been going on for months, he said.

He said it would be "premature" to say whether there will be an event at the collapse site, where the new I-35W bridge is nearly finished. Also unclear is whether work on the bridge reconstruction will halt that day.

"There will be some opportunities for family members to gather privately in addition to the chance for the community to remember that day," McClung said.

Kelly and Kim
Kelly Kahle and Kim Brown were on their way to a soccer game with the I-35W bridge collapsed underneath them.
Photo courtesy of Kelly Kahle

City spokesman Casper Hill said he expects a formal announcement as soon as next week on an interfaith prayer service, and another evening event near the river marking the time when the bridge fell.

An open planning forum was held May 7, and 18 to 20 survivors shared their views on an appropriate remembrance as well as a permanent memorial, said Margaret McAbee, executive director of Survivor Resources.

The Twin Cities nonprofit has held weekly support groups. Invitations for the forum went out via the group's e-mail database, she said.

"People wanted to have the ability to be private that night," she said of the anniversary. "They did not want to be necessarily in the eye of the media or the politicians. They wanted it to be a day for them to come together and remember and expressed their desire to meet some of the people who rescued them."

Remembering Sherry
Ron Engebretsen embraces his daughters Anne and Jessica near the wreckage of the I-35W bridge on Saturday. Ron's wife, Sherry, was killed when the bridge collapsed.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The fact that concrete details haven't been released, however, has added to the frustration of some victims and their families since the collapse, which killed 13 people and injured 145.

Some were bothered that it took nine months to create a state compensation fund for those harmed by the bridge collapse while money for the new Mississippi River crossing and summer flood victims sped through.

"It's getting really close," said Kimberly Brown, who was driving on the bridge when the pavement started breaking in front of her. She said it was strange that she hadn't heard more about what's planned.

Another plaintiffs' lawyer, Phil Sieff, said the mystery surrounding the anniversary "is a little disheartening because they are doing an awfully good job of publicizing the (new) bridge."

[The silence on the remembrance] "is a little disheartening because they are doing an awfully good job of publicizing the [new] bridge."

Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said state officials and the bridge contractor are sorting out plans for construction on that day.

"There will be something to acknowledge that it's the anniversary," Gutknecht said. "We're still trying to firm up the details."

On the new bridge, where work goes on around the clock, time is money.

Bob Edwards, a manager with the prime contractor, said this week that the goal is to finish the bridge Sept. 15 -- 100 days ahead of the deadline for completion.

That would earn the Flatiron-Manson team a bonus of up to $27 million, which includes a lump-sum award for a quick finish. Finishing 99 days early would cost the joint venture $2 million because most of the bonus is based on 10-day increments.

Democratic state Rep. Ryan Winkler, who sponsored the bill for the victims' compensation fund, said the anniversary recognition should go beyond those directly affected.

"It's important for the public to have a public memorial and memory of what happened, too. It was a major public event," Winkler said. "It was a catastrophe that occurred on a major piece of state infrastructure."

As the date approaches, Karge Olsen said he's often blown back by how fast the year has gone.

At the same time, he still feels the collapse with every step he takes -- he'll have surgery fusing some joints in his left foot next week. It'll be his sixth surgery and counting.

"At 3 in the morning and you can't sleep because some pain is waking you up," Olsen said, "it's been a long year."

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

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