Arriving at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport the morning of July 17, the first day of Navy Week in the Twin Cities, Navy Diver 1st Class Brian Bennett checked into his hotel and then boarded a light rail train bound for downtown Minneapolis.
Visiting for the first time in a decade, Bennett found the city’s riverfront almost unrecognizable. When he last departed Minneapolis, after two weeks spent aiding recovery efforts following the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River, the fallen, the crumpled span was still partially submerged in 15 feet of water. It took Bennett a moment to recognize its gleaming white replacement.
As he walked along West River Parkway, Bennett paused at a memorial honoring the 13 people who died in the Aug. 1, 2007 disaster. During a dozen dives into the Mississippi River, Bennett and other recovery workers used code words to refer to remains, out of concern that the media swarming the site might overhear their radio communications.
Now, he was reading names of the people he searched for amid the bent steel and concrete rubble that filled the river’s murky waters.
“To be able to read some of what the families had written up at the memorial was special,” Bennett said.
Standing on the deck of a Hennepin County Sheriff’s office watercraft the following afternoon, Bennett and Chief Navy Diver Noah Gottesman released a wreath of white flowers into the Mississippi River, just below the span on the new bridge. The July 18 ceremony honored both the 171 people who were on the old bridge when it collapsed and the scores of responders who rushed to the site — both for rescue operations in the immediate aftermath and the weeks of recovery that followed.
“It was unlike anything we’ve ever seen and hopefully unlike anything we’re ever going to experience again any time in the near future,” Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said during the ceremony.
The collapse drew not just local first responders from the city, county and surrounding jurisdictions but also state and federal agencies — all of them focusing their efforts on a complex disaster site. When the about half of the 1,907-foot span fell at around 6:05 p.m., 111 vehicles, including a school bus with 63 students and driver, went with it. Seventeen vehicles landed in the water.
Less than 90 minutes later, the last survivor was rescued. A report issued after an investigation by the U.S. Fire Administration lauded the cooperative response.
“The City of Minneapolis was as well prepared as any local jurisdiction could be to handle a major incident,” the report noted.
The National Transportation and Safety Board later determined the gusset plates connecting the 40-year-old bridge’s steel beams were too thin, a design flaw that had been overlooked for decades, and that years of stress and corrosion led up to the structure’s sudden collapse under the weight of rush-hour traffic.
Two members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were standing along the wall at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, and like dozens of other witnesses immediately called 911. Col. Sam Calkins, who commands the corps’ St. Paul District, said they opened gates for first-responders to get through then launched a boat to help rescue survivors.
“The Corps of Engineers’ mission includes disaster response, but we’re used to responding to things like hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters, not things like this,” Calkins said. “This disaster was new to us and unique in our history, and we were lucky to be so close.”
Even luckier, he added, was that a maintenance team was working with a crane just upstream of the bridge at the time. The team stayed on site for a month, using the crane to load and unload equipment and dive platforms and to remove debris from the river.
“If they hadn’t been there, there wouldn’t have been any crane support,” Calkins said. “It wouldn’t have been possible to get anything north of the bridge.”
Barret Lane, a former City Council member and now director of the Minneapolis Office of Emergency Management, was at the time of the collapse working on emergency response planning on a contract basis for the city. Not long after the collapse, Lane was called into the city’s Emergency Operations Center, then located in an undersized space in the basement of City Hall.
“It was full and cramped and warm,” he said, noting that the collapse prompted the city to move emergency operations to a larger space just north of city limits.
Lane had previously joined hundreds of city staff members and city and county elected officials at an emergency management training program in Mount Weather, Virginia, an experience he described as critical to the systematic and orderly response to the collapse.
“Obviously, we didn’t prepare for that particular bridge or any bridge falling down,” he said, but the relationships and understanding established during that training session gave first responders in the field and staff in the operations center a clear understanding of their roles.
“The real takeaway for me is there’s a real payoff in preparedness,” he said.
“Everybody in that room knew what to do,” agreed R.T. Rybak, who was mayor at the time of the collapse and also made the trip to Mount Weather, which took place during his first term in office.
Rybak recalled racing back to Minneapolis from St. Cloud, where he was doing organizing work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, when he both the phones he then carried starting ringing with the news. With things well under control in the emergency operations center, he went to family assistance center at a nearby Holiday Inn. He sat with family members as some learned their loved ones did not survive.
“I have images of people that flash in front of my face, literally, every time I go over that bridge, and I probably always will,” he said.
“I also think about it when I realize how little we’ve done to keep it from happening again, which I think is a damning indictment,” Rybak added. “I think we should celebrate the 10th anniversary and all of the great things that have happened, and I think we should also look in the mirror and be disgusted that almost nothing has been done in this country to keep it from happening again.”