Bridge collapse: Voices from survivors, witnesses

Categories: Minneapolis

An hour after the bridge went down, Chuck Hoffman knew he had come as close to death as any person should come and still make it.

"I'm nervous," he said at a quarter after seven, standing on the top level of a parking ramp on the downtown Minneapolis side of the I-35W bridge. A new plume of smoke filled the air--thick, black, mysterious. The cops suddenly started vacating what had been deigned a "staging area," where media members, drivers who made it over the bridge, and some gawkers were allowed to assemble.

"I feel very lucky," the 60-year-old from New Brighton said. "But I feel badly for all the people who didn't make it."

Some 60 minutes earlier, Hoffman had driven his green Subaru Forester over the bridge to solid ground as the 400-foot stretch of motorway collapsed behind him--splashing down some 64 feet into the Mississippi. He pulled into the University of Minnesota property at 1300 South Second Street and watched from a distance the destruction that had just missed him.

An hour and a half later into the evening, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a cool edifice for most of his career, had a trickle of sweat tracing his left jawline as he started a press conference at the Hennepin County Goverment Center.

"Our hearts and our prayers go out tonight," the mayor said under the glare of a story so big, it led all national and international broadcasts, "to the families and friends of the victims of one of the most tragic nights in the history of Minneapolis."

We know at this point that there were as many as 60 cars on the bridge that sees 140,000 car trips a day. We know that while the 40-year-old bridge was undergoing surface repairs at the time of the collapse, it was, according to Governor Tim Pawlenty, inspected in 2005 and 2006, and was given a free pass on any structural repairs "until 2020," as the governor said, "or beyond."

We also know that Minneapolis firefighters are engaged in a what was a rescue mission that is now a recovery mission--one that includes seven to nine confirmed dead, countless injured, and all but one of the 18-member construction crew, according to Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, accounted for. The search for the roughly 20 missing will go on. UPDATE: Initial death toll estimates have been reduced by three, but are sure to climb somewhat in the coming days.

Finally, we know that TV news helicopters, security cameras and numerous citizen photographers have provided us with perhaps the most surreal images in the history of our fair city.

Why did the bridge, which Pawlenty said had a "unique structure," collapse? Certainly that, and the sure-to-be-rising death toll, will come into focus in the coming weeks. But for now, all we have are the accounts of the people who were there. Here's what some of them had to say.

CHUCK HOFFMAN, 60, COMPUTER SPECIALIST, NEW BRIGHTON

I was going southbound at six o'clock, and I felt my car going up and down. Traffic was about 20 miles per hour. It was strange, like being on a diving board or something, and I thought "What is going on?" I had no idea.

And I glance in my rear view mirror, and I saw the bridge collapse right behind me. It just disappeared.

Wow, this is a tragedy [I’m thinking]. I’m right at the edge, I just gotta keep going and hope I make it off of here. I didn’t know if more bridge was going to collapse, so I look forward, and I saw the bridge ahead of me undulating up and down, and I thought, this could collapse too.

I'm nervous. I feel very lucky. I feel badly for all the people who didn't make it. I saw people going down--it was kind of over the brink from where I was. You could see cars on the other side going down. You could see the rest of the cars and the concrete deck as it was sloping down.

It was very quick, but they just gradually dropped, about five or ten seconds or so.

[Did he have contact with rescue people?] There was nobody there yet. I called 911, and it took a while to get through, and by the time we got through, they said, yeah we got a lot of calls, there are people on their way. I was right on the edge when it all went down.

UNIDENTIFIED PHYSICIAN AT UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA HOSPITAL

It was six o'clock. I was driving on the River Road, driving away from the Riverside campus. I was on southeast, let’s see, when you’re on the intersection for Cedar going toward Chipotle, and I saw all the traffic for the Twins game. So I saw all the traffic for the Twins game, so I said, "Forget this," so I turned toward Grandma's Saloon, went back the back way and took the River Road.

And I was passing along the River Road, all these cars started braking, and slamming on their brakes. And we looked up and we could hear a rumbling, and we could see this bridge start to fold over and just collapse.

[Thoughts at this point?] Uh … Holy shit?

I was maybe a block, not even a block away. You could see the cars sliding initially, and then you see them just fall.

It was really quick. It happened all at once. All of the cars just pulled over, and we got out of the cars and we just stared in total amazement. You saw all these cars just sliding.

Actually I stayed. The cops were there pretty much very quickly. And I offered help because I’m a physician, and they told me the best thing to do was to call my hospital and see what … whether we were needed at the hospital. So they told me to turn around and go back to the hospital. I couldn't turn around and get back to the hospital, so I went back toward Grandma's Saloon and went back toward Riverside.

JEISI AGUAZIA, 13, SOUTH MINNEAPOLIS, WAS ON THE FABLED SCHOOL BUS

Yeah, we got them all out. They were scared, some of them were yelling, some of them were crying.
[Were students thrown out off the bus?] No.

They were able to remove them to a safe place. We [were] just done crossing the water. I didn't look at the water.

I saw the bridge, and part of the bridge way far ahead of me, and I saw part of the bridge. There were a lot of cars there, and there were big trucks ahead of us. The bridge was, like, titled to the side. I saw some cars next to us.

We all got off and we went to the side to get everybody saved, and they took us inside the Red Cross building. They walked us there. I was fine. I was, like, in shock, but I was scared. I’m not sure how long we were on there. About 60 people, children, and staff too.

It took a really long time for us to [reach our parents]. But we were scared.

DENNIS WINEGAR, HOUSTON, TEXAS, IN CAR WITH WIFE, DAUGHTER, NEPHEW AND NEPHEW'S GRANDMOTHER

The bridge was collapsing. The car bounced on the pavement. It was bouncing. Then we finally stopped in that position, right on the edge. We got out, and there was a car actually wedged underneath my car. The road in front of me disappeared. There was nothing but cars, but then there was nothing in front of me.

The tanker that caught on fire later was actually on the other side. I just reacted and put on the brakes and gripped the steering wheel and just started praying to not flip over, because we were sitting about like that. [Tilts his hands.] If we had flipped over, we would have been in more trouble than that.

We did not slide into the water. We're on the section of the bridge that's in the south bank, so the car's not in the water; it's on the ground. I have to call my brother-in law to come and get me.

LT. AMELIA HUFFMAN, MPD SPOKESPERSON

The bridge for 35W did collapse with two lanes of traffic, bumper to bumper. Those cars did go into the river. This resulted in a fire rescue operation. The Minneapolis Police Department is here to assist, but this is a fire rescue operation.

There were a substantial number of cars on the bridge.

This is nothing but a structural collapse at this point. We are investigating everything. We are using a command system developed by the federal government. Everyone has a task and everyone has someone who is in charge.

MPD POLICE CHIEF TIM DOLAN

We don't have anything other than a bridge collapse. We are treating [a terrorist attack] as an impossibility. We don’t believe it's a terrorist act for now.

GOVERNOR TIM PAWLENTY

It is obviously a catastrophe. It's not likely that it is a terrorist incident. It is a bridge collapse.


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