'It felt like an earthquake'

A photograph of the I-35W bridge, taken after the bridge collapsed, hung at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office command site, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2007. Aerial photograph courtesy of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

Photo by Kathy De Foe; Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office

More than a month after the I-35W bridge collapsed, neighborhoods on both sides of the river are still reeling from the disaster

The Aug.1 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge into the Mississippi River was one of the most tragic events in the history of Minneapolis — one that all Minnesotans will remember for years to come.

But for those who live and work in the riverside neighborhoods nearest the ruined span, the disaster’s impact — the immediate shock and response, the crowds and media spotlight in the days following, the lingering effects on traffic and business, and the recovery measures and rebuilding plans — hit closer to home.

While the rest of the state — and even the rest of the world — watched the rescue and recovery efforts on their TV sets, the real-life drama unfolded just outside our front doors.

Some felt the tragedy more acutely — the civilians and sworn-duty officers who rushed immediately to the aid of the fallen, and, most of all, those who lost loved ones or were themselves injured.
In the days and weeks after the disaster, people gathered to pray, mourn, pay respects or just meditate on the event that seems to have affected all of us in one way or another.

In time, we will adjust to the daily reality of detours, longer commutes and traffic tie-ups, but it will be hard not to steal a glimpse at the sloping slabs of concrete and the fenced-in “ground zero” that are daily reminders of the haunting event that once seemed unimaginable but now will never be forgotten.

Aug. 1, 2007

When international students Sri and Jay moved into their apartment in the “A” Block of Seven Corners Apartments two months ago, a rental advertisement promised that their new location was “close to the action.” (The two did not give their last names.)

The claim turned out to be true — perhaps too true. Just weeks after arriving in the United States and settling into new housing, the two MBA students got the surprise of their lives.
“It looked like an earthquake,” Jay said. “We had to run out of the [seventh floor] apartment.”
Both students said their building, which is the closest of the Seven Corners properties to the bridge, physically shook from the collapse.

Within minutes of the collapse, they estimated that some 50 or 60 police cars had arrived on the 10th Avenue bridge.

“I have to say, I didn’t know Minneapolis had this many cop cars,” Jay said.
Residents on the other side of the river seemed equally impressed with the rapid, well-coordinated response.

Marcy-Holmes resident Marilyn Grant said the quick arrival of emergency personnel “amazed” her.
“There was a lot of attention on the neighborhood. I think we came out well,” said fellow Marcy-Holmes resident Melissa Bean, making a specific reference to the local first responders. (Firefighters from Station 11, located just down the street at 229 SE Sixth St., were some of the first to arrive on the scene.)

Ways of coping

At neighborhood gatherings, including National Night Out, the bridge collapse dominated evening conversation. For many, it served as an important outlet for people to share: where they were when they heard the news — or, for some, the actual sound of the collapse; how they have been navigating through the city with several prominent local bridges still closed; and their appreciation for those who were the first to respond to the disaster.

“At night it’s very quiet around here,” Bean said, at a Marcy-Holmes National Night Out party. “You can hear the crickets now. We were used to that hum [of traffic on 35W].”

Bean reiterated what several others at the block party said: that many local residents were avoiding I-35 in general before the bridge fell because of summer construction work.

“In that way, our neighborhood was very fortunate,” she said.

There seemed to be mixed feelings about all of the “sightseers” who flocked to the area in the days after the collapse.

“I felt it was a little disrespectful,” area resident Karen Sorensen said.

Grant said it was simply “human nature” for people to feel compelled to visit the collapsed bridge in person.

Some neighbors expressed concerns about the local traffic chaos that has resulted from other bridge closures and detours.

“It [took] me four times as long to get to the freeway in the morning and at night,” Sorenson said, in the days after the bridge gave out.

Dick Luedtke said he “really miss[es] the 10th Avenue bridge as a local thing.”

While National Night Out offered a forum for neighbors to air their thoughts and feelings, not everyone was talking. One firefighter, who was among the first responders, remained silent, apologetically declining to talk about what happened that evening. “It was too horrific,” he said.
The day after the collapse, Aug. 2, several neighborhood places of worship held special services for people to reflect on the tragedy and grieve for those who died in the disaster.

“There’ll be a lot of other times to come together [in the next few weeks.] But sometimes you feel like you have to do something that day, or that morning,” said Nancy Victorin-Vangerud, the pastor at Prospect Park United Methodist Church.

Victorin-Vangerud held a vigil outside of her church, attended by a dozen or so local residents, the evening after the bridge failure, before most of the victims had been publicly identified.
“You don’t have to wait until you know someone [who was involved] to respond,” she said.

On Aug. 6 and Aug. 10, Muslim leaders hosted memorial services at Brian Coyle Community Center to honor those who died. Among those in attendance at the prayer service on Aug. 6 was Ahmed Sahal Iidle, the father of Sadiya Sahal, the 23-year-old pregnant woman who died with her 22-month-old daughter Hana.

Impact on local business

In the early days after the collapse, local business owners were already anticipating the economic impact it would have, both short and long term.

A week after the tragedy, members of the Dinkytown Business Association met to gauge the impact of the disaster and discuss how to draw customers to the area.

Julie Marshall, owner of the newly opened Cereal World and Minnesota Popcorn Connection restaurant, said that, in the days immediately following the bridge collapse when the public heard the official message of ‘don’t come to the bridge’ they only heard, ‘don’t come.’

Ward 3 Council Member Diane Hofstede agreed. “We need to invite people back to the university [area] to say we are open for business,” she said.

Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson said the city would include Dinkytown in a funding request to cover business losses. If funding becomes available, Johnson said, the business association should be ready to specify funds to help with resources, such as a website and directional signs. Hofstede said business owners and tenants should document the economic impact as much as possible.

The owner of the Blarney Pub and Grill, Mike Mulrooney, said that, although his business seems to have benefited in the days following the collapse, Dinkytown business in general is likely to be affected for a long time. The night of the collapse, his customers stayed to watch the television coverage, and business the week following was better than it had been all summer, he said. Customers stayed in the area, he thinks, because they couldn’t easily go downtown or to Uptown.

Johnson said business owners have asked him what they could do to help. One idea would be to hold a dinner, possibly outdoors in tents, for the rescue workers, Johnson said. One business owner hoped that the Dinkytown Festival, planned for Sept. 15, would draw people to the Dinkytown area and promote area businesses.

Johnson, who owns Autographics printing, said in an interview that his customers from the western suburbs have called about alternate routes to take and have been willing to come.

“A long haul”

Commenting on what area and neighborhood businesses will endure in the coming months, at a separate meeting of business owners and local, state and federal officials at Augsburg College, County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin (District 5) said he would need the “work, support and patience” of local business people to get through this difficult period.

“It’s going to be a long haul that we’re going to have to work through,” McLaughlin added.
After the Augsburg meeting, a woman from Children’s World Learning Center, 807 SE Second St., voiced concern about customers’ access to her business. Another business owner was worried that weight limits on local detour routes would not allow for delivery of the heavy equipment he deals in.
Jerry Showalter, whose family runs the BP gas station on University Avenue at the north end of the 10th Avenue bridge, said the closure “has to have some impact” on his business.

Detours, bridge closures

Continued closure of the 10th Avenue bridge has been the subject of considerable contention in recent weeks.

Editor’s note: After the September issue of The Bridge went to press, it was announced that the 10th Avenue bridge would open to the public on Aug. 31 (see Linda’s Lincoln’s blog). Meanwhile, the “Bridge 9” pedestrian bridge was opened on only the West bank end on Aug. 21. The East bank side was blocked by university construction, according to the City of Minneapolis website, which stated that the city would work to have the pedestrian bridge open by the time U of M classes started in early September.

University transportation spokeswoman Sandra Cullen called the sustained closure of the 10th Avenue bridge “totally unacceptable,” speaking from the university’s standpoint, because students and others and the state’s largest college need to use it. School begins Sept. 4 and based on last year’s enrollment figures, more than 50,000 students are expected to attend classes at the university this fall.

Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office released a statement in mid-August saying, “city and state traffic engineers believe that opening the 10th Avenue bridge as a bypass alternative to the I-35W bridge would create immense and difficult-to-manage traffic congestion that neither the bridge nor adjacent neighborhoods are equipped to handle. In addition, with a low side-railing on the upstream side of the bridge, the 10th Avenue Bridge is not currently equipped to be used as a safe viewpoint of the disaster area.”

Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon said at the Seward Neighborhood Group’s (SNG) Aug. 22 board meeting that the city had previously been waiting on the recovery effort to reopen the bridge. The body of the 13th victim, Greg Jolstad — the last known fatality in the collapse — was found by divers Aug. 20.

There has been a “lot of pressure to open up [the 10th Avenue bridge] soon,” Gordon said, speaking both about residents’ and the university’s concerns.

At the meeting, SNG board member Bob Hain told Gordon the 10th Avenue bridge should, at the very least, be opened to pedestrian and bike traffic quickly.

Hain said it takes much longer for bikers and pedestrians to use an alternative bridge than it does for a car to follow a detour across the river. “There’s only so many bridges, you know,” Hain said.
At press time, the Star Tribune was reporting that workers were already installing a fence and a walkway on the west side of the 10th Avenue bridge, facing the 35W bridge collapse site, to make the bridge pedestrian safe. City spokesman Matt Laible could not be reached for comment about when the bridge might reopen or what types of traffic — pedestrian, bike or motor vehicle — would be permitted when it does.

The city of Minneapolis has confirmed it will open both ends of Bridge 9, otherwise known as the Dinkytown Bicycle Connection, when classes resume at the U of M. Bridge 9, the former railroad bridge connecting the east and west banks of the U of M campus, was previously closed following the collapse and then, later, accessible only from one side.

Rebuilding

In the days just after the collapse several residents in both the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood and the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, on the opposite side of the river, already had concerns about the speed with which a new bridge will be constructed.

“That bridge is on a fast track,” Bean said, adding that the safety and even the aesthetics of a bridge designed and built so quickly concerned her to some degree.

Luedtke agreed with Bean. “I’m concerned that they’ll hurry too much to get it done,” he said. He also mentioned aesthetics as an issue and asked aloud whether now is the right time to incorporate light-rail transit (LRT) with a new bridge.

Jackie Entsminger, project manager for Seven Corners Apartments voiced similar concern that the rebuilding of the bridge might occur “too swiftly.”

Two weeks after the collapse, the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA) met to discuss the situation and formulate an official statement about the issues they were concerned with and how officials should proceed.

Bean, who is also MHNA’s executive director, said the message that came out of the meeting was “slow down the process and seize this as an opportunity.

“Years from now… politicians will be recognized for their vision and foresightedness, not their expediency,” she said.

Bean said MHNA members discussed plans for a bridge that complements but does not overwhelm other nearby bridges. They also talked about the idea of enlarging the area of the bridge and also, the issue of the University Avenue and Southeast Fourth Street interchange, which was said to be “problematic” for local residents in the past.

“Let’s listen to the neighborhood,” Bean said. “We want to have the conversation be a little bit more than ‘just build it like it was.’ There are opportunities there.”

Minneapolis City Council members developed similar criteria they felt were essential in a new bridge. On Aug. 17, the Council passed a “statement of principles” related to the design and construction of the new bridge.

Among their requests, the Council stated that the design should address “the bottleneck created by the University and 4th Street bridges on the north end of the site.” They also said the new bridge “should incorporate, and certainly not preclude options for future transit improvements, such as making the new bridge structure light-rail transit and bus rapid transit (BRT) ready.”
Although, early on, state and Metropolitan Council officials recommended against including LRT in the design, Gov. Tim Pawlenty eventually backed the idea, instructing MnDOT to make plans for the new bridge light-rail ready.

The additional money needed to make the bridge capable of handling LRT is not covered under federal emergency funds and would need to be drawn from state funds.

Councilmember Gordon called the compromise between the city and the state over LRT a “little victory” that “we had by being united.”

A public consent hearing for the new bridge is set for Thursday, Sept. 20 at 5:30 p.m. at the Thrivent Financial Auditorium, 625 Fourth Ave. SE.

For the most up-to-date information on the rebuilding of the 35W bridge, visit the city’s website.

—Liz Riggs, Bill Hoffmann, Linda Lincoln and Jeremy Stratton

last revised: August 31, 2007