Caught in the chaos

Prospect Park resident Greg Bernstein was one of the first citizens to respond to the bridge collapse

Photo by Chris Steller

Local man steps up, aids in rescue efforts mere minutes after disaster strikes

Prospect Park resident Greg Bernstein carries two new pictures in his wallet, tucked among the fives and 10s. He unfolds them carefully as he prepares to go over, once more, what happened during one recent hour of his life.

Both pictures show views looking down on the scene not far from Second Street Southeast, just after the I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi on Aug. 1.

The first picture is a nearly full-page photo from the next day’s Star Tribune, in which, after many examinations, Bernstein found himself. He is at the lower edge, obscured by branches but identifiable, wearing a white T-shirt.

That helps fix the picture in time. It must have been taken after he had wrapped his Oxford cloth shirt around a man named Hector who had a coaster-sized hole in his back, but before he had given his T-shirt to a young woman who was bleeding from her ears.

The other picture Bernstein’s brother found while scouring the Internet. It shows the same general area from a somewhat different elevated perspective. The dense tones of the printer ink make it hard for someone who wasn’t there to sort out what’s what among the angled slabs and clumps of crumpled vehicles.

But as he smoothes the pictures side by side on the table top and begins to explain the jagged geography of the disaster, it’s clear that for Bernstein these two photos help. They make some sense out of the senseless scene into which he rushed that Wednesday evening, a scene he won’t be leaving behind anytime soon.

With neighbors coming to dinner, Bernstein had stopped at Surdyk’s liquor store on his way home from his Downtown office. A yellow cloud far ahead on University Avenue made him think they might finally be building something on the big vacant lot at 10th Avenue Southeast.

On the 35W overpass, he noticed people standing in a line, each with an arm upraised, and behind them something that made him think, “I didn’t know that was a lift bridge.”

A second later he realized: “It’s not a lift bridge. It’s a disaster.” The people on the overpass were taking cell phone pictures.

Bernstein left his car at a BP station and went to the 10th Avenue bridge expecting to watch a rescue effort well underway. But all he saw were people on the broken freeway below, crawling out of cars. It was only 60–90 seconds since the bridge had fallen.

A bicycle cop was starting down the river bluff’s long slope nearby. “Do you want help with this?” Bernstein asked. “Anybody who can, should help,” she responded. They scrambled over bushes and fences, under a train not far from where it was squished like a tin can and through super-soft sand in a beeline to the river.

Then a cry for help came from his right that Bernstein figures may have saved his own life, by diverting him from more difficult and dangerous rescue attempts in the river.

“My mom is trapped!” a woman called from a car. At the same time, the bike cop was shouting for assistance from up the hillside, having gotten stuck. It was the first of many triage decisions Bernstein would make over the next hour. Figuring the cop could free herself or get other help, Bernstein rushed to the car, where he busted a window and peeled back a stuck door to get to the driver, who was pinned behind the steering wheel, conscious and not bleeding. But she wasn’t in imminent danger of dying, so he told the daughter to keep her mom talking while he moved on to help someone else.

Bernstein saw people standing dazed in the bridge wreckage who might either be victims or civilian rescuers confused about what to do. One of them called him to a spot under an upended truck that was resting precariously on a V of fractured concrete.

“He’s got a hole in his back,” he said. They rolled him over and saw a cup-sized opening that wasn’t bleeding but afforded a gruesome view into his insides. That’s when Bernstein’s shirt went into service, wrapped around the man with a wad of cloth at his wound to at least keep out debris. Bernstein eyed the leaning truck overhead and decided despite his back injury they’d have to move the victim to an impromptu bed amongst the rubble he asked the other man to prepare.

Bernstein was putting into practice a lesson in triage he learned two decades ago during ski patrol training he took in college to get free lift tickets. When you face multiple victims, evaluate the airway, breathing and circulation of each one. If those are all OK and there is no imminent danger of death, move on to the next person.

Eventually, professional triage officers arrived on the scene, using color codes to direct emergency responders to those needing help most urgently. But for now, Bernstein was on his own.

He went next to the woman sitting to the side who needed his T-shirt more than he did, and seeing that she was OK, moved on to the only still-occupied car on the nearby piece of freeway deck. There he gave a man named David a capful of water (recalling advice about not letting shock victims drink) and asked if he could take the rest himself.

With more rescuers on the scene, Bernstein moved to a victim in rough shape whose car was under a truck. He stayed with Jason for perhaps 20 minutes. Taking in what looked a scene from a disaster movie, “I kept waiting for someone to yell, ‘Cut!” Bernstein said.

At 7 p.m., Bernstein looked around and decided enough professionals were on the scene and he wasn’t needed anymore. He tried to call home but the cell lines were jammed. He arrived, half-naked and covered with blood and dust, to a very worried family and Arthur Avenue Southeast neighbors gathered in the street.

“How does it feel to know that you’ll never in your life be this welcome to be home again?” asked his friend from across the street, Greg Simpson.

last revised: September 5, 2007