A rebuilding process: Stories from the day a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis
MINNEAPOLIS — On Aug. 1, 2007, Lindsay Walz, Jessie Shelton and Sarah Mundy-Evans were strangers with one thing in common: They were driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic across the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in the evening rush hour. At just past 6 p.m., the bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring 145.
Walz, Shelton and Mundy-Evans were among the injured. That moment turned their lives upside down, required years of recovery and shaped how they think and feel 10 years later.
The day the bridge fell was one of shock and tragedy, dramatic survival and heroic rescues.
Ten years later, this is the story of those who were trapped in the cars in murky water and struggled back. The tale of rescuers springing to action. The brief moment when politics stopped and cooperation reigned.
The shock of the moment still resonates in Minnesota.
Suddenly the bridge became a terrifying carnival ride
Lindsay Walz of Minneapolis had just finished a day of work at a group home for troubled teenagers in Shoreview and was driving south on I-35W on her way home. She was 24 years old.
"I got to about the middle of the bridge when I heard what I would have said sounds like a beam snap or something, a very loud metal clank," Walz recalled.
"My car went directly to the bottom of the river. It didn't stop moving until the front wheel hit the bottom of the Mississippi. As my car was falling into the river, it was also filling up with water. So by the time my car stopped moving, the cabin of my vehicle was completely submerged and there wasn't any air pockets or anything like that for me to breathe."
Walz unbuckled her seat belt and started pushing on the car windows and roof, desperately trying to find a way out. No one would rescue her in time and she'd drown if she didn't get out, she thought.
"And I got to the point where I just decided that I was going to die," she said.
Jessie Shelton was a teenager heading to the Children's Theatre Company to perform in a show, when the bridge started collapsing under her car.
"I just remember feeling kind of like a tilt-a-whirl amusement park ride. It was this sort of like jerky sensation in my memory," recalled Shelton, now 28 and an actor, musician and dancer in New York City. "The last thing I remember was rolling backwards and thinking, I didn't know what was going to happen, I wasn't exactly fearful, I just kind of put thoughts to the ether of 'This'll come out all right,' or 'I hope this'll come out all right.'"
Her car landed on a bridge deck. A large chunk of debris had crashed through the roof and landed in her back seat. She recalled another injured but mobile survivor walked past her and didn't stop because he thought she was dead.
For Sarah Mundy-Evans, the life-changing moment began with a vision of cars disappearing ahead of her.
"I just remember it was maybe 10 car lengths ahead of me, I saw the road just disintegrating and falling," said Mundy-Evans, who was driving from her job in Bloomington to her Minneapolis home that day. "I was just cruising along, and I saw that happen.
"I thought I was entering some sinkhole, that the ground was just sinking beneath me. I had no idea what was happening. But I knew that I was not going to get out of this. I was going to go down with it.
"I saw the cars dropping off in front of me, just basically disappearing from my view. And as it came to my turn, I held onto the steering wheel, and as I was falling ... I remember looking at my purse ... wanting to get my phone to call someone to tell them goodbye. But everything was happening so fast. I outreached my hand, (but) it was too hard to get. So I just put my hand back on the steering wheel and held on and I dropped."
90 minutes of chaos and rescue
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek was driving to a meeting in the western suburbs that evening when he heard a police radio alert that a bridge had collapsed.
He whipped his car around and rushed to the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, just upstream from the fallen bridge.
Arriving about 20 minutes after the call went out and still dressed in a suit and tie, Stanek met with his deputies and Minneapolis police and fire crews to coordinate rescue efforts. He then climbed down a ladder inside the lock to join a group of firefighters in a small boat. The lock master lowered the water to the level of the river and opened the gates.
"I remember those big bifold doors opening up and seeing all the carnage and wreckage," the sheriff said. "I remember the smoke, fire, cars and people in the water, people trying to get out. There were lots of sirens and a lot of chatter on the portable radio I had with me."
He watched firefighters in boats check partially submerged cars for survivors inside. Other firefighters and police officers climbed out on bridge wreckage to pull the injured to safety. Civilians and off-duty law enforcement rushed to the shores to help. He had to turn away other civilians who wanted to dive into the dangerous water and join the search.
'I wasn't sure if I was dead or alive'
Walz's car was at the bottom of the Mississippi and filled with water; her fate seemed doomed as she struggled to breathe and get out. And suddenly, somehow, she was freed.
"My body started to feel like it was floating," Walz said. She kicked to the surface and gasped for air.
"I still wasn't sure if I was dead or alive at that point," she said, "but I made some noise and a construction worker who had fallen with the bridge ... saw me, heard me, motioned me over to get onto the bridge. He found a broom and fished me out of the water."
Another survivor wearing scrubs administered first aid until an emergency medical team reached them by boat, strapped Walz to a backboard and took her to shore. She was rushed to a nearby hospital in the back of a pickup truck.
Shelton, in her car on which a large chuck of debris had fallen, had suffered a broken back, fractured ribs and a minor concussion.
She was rescued by firefighters and taken to North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale. Her parents were relieved to learn she had survived, but "my mom said she didn't breath until they told her that my toes were moving because, you know, so often if you suffer spinal damage, you can be paralyzed."
Mundy-Evans' car first bounced off part of the bridge, setting off the airbags, then landed on some bridge debris on West River Parkway, "kind of nose-diving into the direction of the river," said Mundy-Evans, now 36 and living in Robbinsdale.
She was able to get out of her car and start climbing up the crumbled bridge.
"I was in shock," she said, when a bicyclist showed up and helped her off the bridge. When they reached a street, a motorist drove her to a nearby hospital, where she was treated for bruised ribs, burns on her arms and a chipped tooth and released.
Sheriff Stanek recalled: "It was chaotic for 90 minutes or so. After that it became clear that it was no longer a rescue mission but a recovery. Everybody who could be rescued was rescued. The others were under water."
Stanek and other law enforcement leaders met at an ad hoc command post at the water's edge, where they prepared for a 9 p.m. press conference at Minneapolis City Hall with then-Mayor R.T. Rybak and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"We were trying to bring some calm to the chaos."
Shock, disbelief and a call for action
Current Lt. Gov. Tina Smith was Rybak's chief of staff at the time. Rybak was out of town at his family's lake home when the bridge fell, so she was in charge of the city government. A year before the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, she and other Twin Cities leaders were entertaining GOP officials in the glass-enclosed ballroom atop the IDS Center.
"Around 6:10 or 6:15 p.m., someone told me, 'Tina, Tina, you need to talk to (Police) Chief (Tim) Dolan. The 35W bridge has collapsed,'" recalled Smith.
"I couldn't process that information. 'What do you mean it collapsed?' Then I twirled around and could see out of the window the site of the disaster. By that time there were already helicopters around where the bridge had been and just a huge puff of dust and chaos."
She rushed back to City Hall to set up an emergency response center in the basement. An emergency team had it up and running by the time she arrived.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty was out for a Grand Avenue jog. As he approached the governor's residence in St. Paul, state troopers following him in a car pulled up and told him that a bridge had collapsed.
"Which one?" he asked.
"I-35W," a trooper replied.
"Oh, my lord!" the governor recalled he exclaimed.
The officers rushed him back to the residence, where he saw images of the disaster on television. He immediately summoned his staff and Cabinet members to the house to implement a response plan. Then he had troopers rush him to the bridge site to coordinate state and local government responses.
"I had handled a number of emergencies and natural disasters, but nothing of this magnitude," Pawlenty said.
Red Cross volunteer Kathryn Schmidt, a retired teacher from Minnetonka, had driven to the relief agency's local office a block from the bridge site. It became a staging area for the emergency responders.
Red Cross officials assigned Schmidt to open a family assistance center at a nearby Holiday Inn. As family members missing loved ones arrived at the scene, they were directed to the center to wait for information. Counseling from a "stress team" of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and clergy was also provided.
The Rev. Linda Koelman, a Minneapolis police chaplain and pastor at North United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, was one of the counselors.
"We started seeing families almost immediately," she said. "Most people were really stressed because they couldn't get ahold of loved ones."
The counselors collected information that would help identify the missing, passed along what scant information they had and tried to comfort family members.
"If they wanted to talk, fine. If not, fine," she said.
Over the course of the evening, Schmidt said, "our clients became fewer as, one by one, loved ones were found. Often it was by chance: someone had stayed at work late, some had stopped for a beer. Some who were on the bridge were rescued safely and others were taken to hospitals. Some bodies were recovered."
By the next day, just eight families of the missing showed up at the center, and the number dropped every day until the last remains were recovered on Aug. 21.
'No resources were off limits'
Rybak, a former police reporter, had visited many crime scenes; nothing matched what he saw that day.
Just before sunset and after visiting with families at the center, Republican Pawlenty invited Democrat Rybak to fly over the bridge site in a state helicopter.
"We saw a school bus perched on the edge of the bridge, and I started thinking about who those kids were," he said. "I saw cars in the water and thought about whose father or child was in it."
For days, elected officials set their political differences aside and worked together on cleanup operations, restoring transportation and preparing to replace the bridge.
The night the bridge collapsed, the late Congressman Jim Oberstar, the lead Democrat on transportation issues, phoned Rybak from the House floor to say he was drafting legislation to fund a replacement.
On Saturday, Aug. 4, Congress authorized $250 million to build a new bridge. The bridge was completed in record time — just 13 months after the previous one fell.
Earlier that Saturday, President George W. Bush flew into the Twin Cities to tour the bridge site and ask local officials what they needed from the federal government.
Stanek said: "This was the first major disaster after Hurricane Katrina. The federal government didn't exactly get an A for their response to that disaster ... and they wanted to get this right.
"So no resources were off limits. All we had to do was ask for them, and we weren't particularly shy about asking."
At the top of their list: Navy divers to recover human remains from the wreckage. Hennepin County sheriff's office divers were experienced at finding bodies in lakes and rivers, but nothing as dangerous as the debris-filled Mississippi at the collapsed bridge site.
After Air Force One departed from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that afternoon, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters phoned Pawlenty from the plane. She connected him with the Secretary of the Navy who quickly dispatched a diving team.
Chief Navy Diver Noah Gottesman of Gaithersburg, Md., and Navy Diver Brian Bennett of Eatontown, N.J., volunteered to join the team and flew to Minneapolis. Their task was challenging even for the divers experienced in investigating underwater wreckage.
"The water was dark and murky, poor visibility," Gottesman said last week during a return visit to the bridge site. "You could only see four or five inches in front of your face. The river was filled with sharp debris — rebar, concrete, rubble.
"But it wasn't that dangerous the way we approached it as a team, taking proper surveys, knowing where the hazardous areas were and being cautious with our movements."
Bennett said, "We took a situation that was out of the norm and made it almost routine."
The divers worked 12-hour shifts until they recovered the body of the 13th and final known victim: Greg Jolstad, a construction worker from Mora who had been doing a paving project on the bridge deck when it fell.
The day after the collapse, Jolstad's wife, Lisa, stopped Stanek in the family center and said she feared divers would give up the search before they recovered her husband. "Please don't let that happen," she said.
"I told all the families we weren't going to leave any victims behind," Stanek said.
Mourning the victims, healing the survivors
Asked 10 years later what is most memorable about the tragedy, the governor, mayor and sheriff all gave the same two-word response: "The victims." They said they still mourn the loss of those who died and remain concerned about their families and the people who were injured and continue to live with the effects of their wounds.
Lindsay Walz, the survivor who was trapped in her car under water, said her back injury still plagues her, and it took her five years to pull through the emotional distress of the incident. "That has had the biggest impact on my life," she said.
Art helped her heal, she said. That prompted her to found Courageous HeARTS, a nonprofit art center in Minneapolis for troubled youths, in 2013.
Jessie Shelton, the Minneapolis teenager who suffered a broken back, spent the next three months in a back brace and postponed enrolling in Carnegie Mellon University's musical theater program for a year. She's now performing in New York City. "Despite my great injury that is so terrifying," her artistic career is "going well. ... I'm loving it here, and I'm excited for all the future will hold."
Sarah Mundy-Evans, who walked away with minor injuries from a car that fell to a road below the bridge, is married and the mother of two children.
"I don't talk about what happened that day (of the crash) a whole lot," she said. But on the 10-year anniversary, "I've been looking at pictures more than I have in the past and just really being amazed that I made it out. And I feel for the families who have to think about this day when they lost someone."