Friday, August 1, 2008

The I-35W Bridge: A Year Later

Here's something I wrote a year ago. I post it here in memory of those who died, those who survived, those who responded, and for a community that came together.

Reflections on Bridge 9340 Tim Johnson, August 2, 2007

I came home shortly before 6pm, let out the dog, and turned on the news.
It’s a daily routine, suddenly broken by “breaking news.”
A bridge has collapsed, but not just any bridge.
Interstate 35W, a major north-south artery through the city, has burst.
(Why do we impute blood and flesh to concrete and steel?)

A brief panic sets in and I reach for my cell.
I dial my son, who I know sometimes travels this route.
But nothing happens. The system is overloaded. No calls go through.
Anxious, I reach for the land line and reach him on the second ring.
He is fine, but unaware of what has happened. I tell him.

A few minutes later the phone rings again. It’s my mother.
She’s calling to let me know how my aunt’s surgery went.
It went fine. I ask her, “Are you watching the news?”
She’s not, and like her grandson, doesn’t know what’s happened.
I fill her in, wish her a good night, and go back to the tube.

I am riveted. The images are rending.
For the next four hours I am glued to the screen.
Story after story rolls past, some more hysterical than others.
More phone calls come. Friends, checking to see that I’m all right.
I am. But I get choked up in their concern.

They know that I travel this route often, both on the bridge and under.
They know that I work two blocks from the bridge. They are worried.
But now they are comforted. More calls come in, from out of state.
I am all right. And touched again. And back to more news.
I’m appreciating the calmer, more balanced reporters.

By 10:30 I’m wrung out and strung out and ready for bed.
I fall asleep, like I always do, to BBC radio.
The collapse is their lead story.
I wonder how many of their listeners know where Minneapolis is.
Curiously, I sleep soundly. No earth-shattering dreams.

This morning I wake up to more news. Not much has changed.
Walking to my bus stop I wonder what sights will greet me.
I pull a book from my bag and read until I get near downtown.
My eyes scan the sky for helicopters, but none are seen.
The headline in one paper is to the point: COLLAPSE

Downtown seems the same as ever. Still no sight of helicopters.
Off the bus, I walk to my office. It seems strangely calm.
I run through my opening routines and decide to take a walk.
I want to see the bridge. It’s only two blocks away.
A little, perverse voice says “it would be a shame not to.”

Catching up with colleagues, we walk towards the bridge.
But every way is blocked.
State troopers are stationed near a neighboring bridge.
City police block the way to another bridge.
But a parking ramp at a nearby building offers a view.

It is a sobering sight. Unbelievable. Life drops from view.
The road is snapped, like a twig. Beyond is crumpled steel.
And beyond that there is nothing.
Until the other side, the East Bank, with another snapped section.
Cars and trucks, stilled, sit at odd angles, clinging to the road.

I go back to the office, and the rest of the day is filled with more reports.
The news—both audio and video—streams from my computer.
As do e-mails from friends and colleagues, wondering if we’re OK.
And I’m touched again. And send out notes saying I’m alive and well.
I lunch with a friend, but we don’t talk much about the collapse.

After lunch I try to concentrate on work, but it is impossible.
A report arrives electronically, a study of the bridge in question.
By engineers. I find out the bridge has a name: Bridge 9340.
I skim through the report and slow for the important parts.
I didn’t know pigeon poop was so corrosive.

By mid-afternoon I’m totally distracted and decide to take a walk.
I head to the East Bank, hopeful for another view of the wreck.
I join a stream of pilgrims, each headed in the same direction.
For the same reason. Young and old. Each wants to see.
The views are obstructed. Some just shake their heads in disbelief.

Along the way I overhear a conversation between a mother and daughter.
The mother is saying “It’s not because it’s exciting.
It’s just that seeing it makes it real.” I wonder what the little girl will think.
What does “real” mean to her?
I keep going, looking for a better view. But I never find one.

Along the way I notice the grass, bent and torn like the green girders of the bridge.
Both injuries are man-made, inflicted on nature, causing pain.
I return to the office, still distracted, somewhat sadder, a little more tired.
But people keep streaming toward the site. A brace here. A cluster there.
What is the fascination with a thing we took for granted?

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