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Bridge survivor on 5th anniversary: 'The day I got to live'

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Painting her back brace
Lindsay Walz, 29, paints details on the back brace she wore for injuries suffered when I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, Minn. five years ago. In addition to a broken back, Walz also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of the I-35W bridge collapse in downtown Minneapolis. On August 1, 2007, 13 people died and 145 others were injured after one of Minnesota's busiest bridges suddenly fell into the Mississippi River. 

MPR's Tom Crann checks in with one of the survivors of the collapse, Lindsey Petterson Walz. The two of them have talked several times over the past five years.  Walz told Crann on Tuesday that the events of that day still affect her in many ways. 

An edited transcript of that conversation is below.    

Tom Crann: You've been married recently, right? 

Lindsay Petterson Walz: I got married on Jan. 1, this year.

Crann: Physically, when we look back at what happened the night of the bridge collapse, it hurt your back pretty badly. How's your back these days, and physically how are you? 

Walz: It's a moving target, I've got my good days, and I've got my bad days. It's not nearly as bad. I'm loads better than I ever thought I would be. I kind of deal with some level of pain all the time. And I think it's just my new normal, but it's pretty much just what I deal with on a regular basis and I even really don't pay much attention to it. 

Bridge survivor
Lindsay Walz, 29, paints the back brace she wore for five months following the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, July 30, 2012. Walz, who was in the middle of the bridge when it collapsed five years ago, said she uses art as therapy for the accident.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

I still go to the acupuncturist and get massages and stuff like that to help me out when it gets really bad, but for the most part it's just my new normal.

Crann: The last time we talked it was about three years ago. You said at that time, the work of recovering from the collapse and the advocacy work was like a second full-time job. Has that aspect calmed down a bit for you as well? 

Walz: Yeah, it has. I probably hit rock bottom about two-and-a-half years ago, where I just didn't realize how much in pain I was, how bad it was affecting the people around me, how isolated I had become from my friends and family, and really had to look deep into myself and did some additional therapy, worked really hard at that time to really, really move forward.

I was able to do it, and feel like I have kind of sprung back in a way.

I was listening back to that last interview to hear what I said, and I think it's just interesting to think that I thought I was doing so much better then. And looking back I realize that I wasn't even close to doing good, compared to how I feel now. I feel so much better and I feel like I've really come full circle. 

Depicting the Mississippi River
Along with newspaper clippings detailing the I-35W bridge collapse, Lindsay Walz, 29, depicts the Mississippi River on the back brace she wore for five months following the collapse at her home in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, July 30, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Crann: What changed for you? 

Walz: That's a good question. My life became so important in every little aspect, every little moment of things that you want to happen in your life. I got married to my long-term boyfriend. He was my boyfriend when the bridge collapsed, and we were together through almost that whole thing and it was really hard on both of us.

I just wanted to get married. When I was at the bottom of the river, drowning, I missed out on getting married and having kids. Things like that, that are just life moments and milestones that I knew I almost lost, became so much more important. Moving forward with that kind of layer of life, I want to live life. All these other people haven't had this life-changing moment, where every moment really does count the same way that I have. I had to really look at that and think through how I can work with where I'm at with how other people are doing.

Crann: Something struck me in one of the previous interviews you gave closer to the collapse, I think it was a year after. You said it was really hard for you to have to have trust in -- as you put it, things that were made by other people: elevators, tunnels. You have a fear of that. These five years on — are you more trusting? 

Walz: I think that ebbs and flows too. I have my little... almost idiosyncrasies now, where I just have my finger on the button of the window of my car when I'm going over things. Or I hold onto things that I don't realize. When I'm in an elevator in a railing, I'm holding on to it in case it falls so I don't hit my head. It's just a thing I do now. On a certain level, maybe it isn't the most normal thing, but it keeps me going out into the world, and keeps me interacting and doing things that might be kind of scary. In that way, I think it's an OK thing to do.

Broken back
Lindsay Walz, 29, marked the place where she broke her L1 vertebrae on the back brace she wore for five months following the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, July 30, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

There are still things I avoid, like at the Guthrie {Theater) they have the endless bridge. I don't love that. It tricks you into thinking you're on solid ground, then you go out and you're right at the end of this thing that's suspended.

Crann: These anniversaries -- this is the fifth one coming up so there will be some media attention. Are these important or do they just dredge it all back up?

Walz: No, they're very important. It's my life day. It's the day I got to live. I almost didn't. It's the day that I've set aside to think, to reflect, whether it's about myself, or about the world or about the families that have lost others. 

For me, it's the one day that I know for sure every year that I can count on as only a day for me. It might include other people, but this year it's going to be me alone. In the morning I'm going to paint and I'm going to do some things that are really about me. I'm actually going to paint the brace that I wore for a long time, try to make something out of it. 

Crann: You do keep in touch with the other survivors on Facebook. I remember at one point when you came to talk to us you were here with a woman who became a friend of yours. Do you have a sense of the different ways people have dealt with their recoveries, and how things have gone for others?

Bridge deck
A collapsed portion of the I-35W bridge deck.
National Transportation Safety Board

Walz: It's interesting to think about that because I think that everyone's recovery is as unique as their experience on the bridge that day. None of us experienced the same thing, even if we were a car length away from each other. Some people are still riddled with pain, having surgeries, dealing with ongoing pain that's kind of crippling and they can't work. They can't do things they used to take for granted.

Along with that comes, of course, the emotional toll that takes, just not being able to be who they used to be. Others have blocked it out, just tried to move forward. And I think there's everything in between. It's really a personal experience for each person. 

Crann: When you are in touch with each other, is there still an aspect of a support network for different people's recoveries at different stages? 

Walz: On Facebook, if one of us were to send a message and say, 'I'm really struggling,' there would be 20 people at the corner bakery picking up doughnuts and bringing them. There would be an immediate response. People are ready and willing to do what they can to help any of us. It's just the way the general population was that day: right there and ready to help.

This interview was transcribed and edited by MPR News reporter Jon Collins.