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Remembering The I-35W Bridge Collapse 10 Years Later

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ten years ago today, the unthinkable happened in Minneapolis when an interstate bridge collapsed just at the end of rush hour. Thirteen people died, and many more were injured. Minnesota Public Radio's Solvejg Wastvedt talked with survivors and witnesses who still hold on to vivid memories of that disaster.

SOLVEJG WASTVEDT, BYLINE: The Interstate 35-W bridge was one of Minnesota's busiest, eight lanes of traffic carrying more than 140,000 drivers each day across the Mississippi River. But just after 6 p.m. on August 1, 2007, it crumpled into the water. Jamie Winegar and Melissa Hughes were on the bridge.

JAMIE WINEGAR: Just feeling this boom, boom. And my husband was saying, are y'all all right? Are you all right? Because it - I think it fell four times.

MELISSA HUGHES: I swear I saw construction workers suspended in the air. And just kind of that feeling, that free-fall feeling - I felt like we did that twice.

WASTVEDT: Dozens of cars fell into the river. Kelly Kahle was driving north on the bridge to a soccer game when she heard rumbling.

KELLY KAHLE: The north end of the bridge, the direction we were going to, looked like it went up, vertically, in the air.

WASTVEDT: But Kahle was plunging down. She remembers thinking she was going to die.

KAHLE: And then, all of a sudden, muddy water with bits of concrete hit the window. And I'm, like, God, please don't let me die by drowning. That's the way I don't want to drown. I don't want to die by that way. And then, all of a sudden, it cleared. And we're - the car's still. And we're just like, get out, get out. We have to get out.

WASTVEDT: Miraculously, Kahle wasn't hurt. Her section of the bridge floated right side up in the water, other cars perched on angled pieces of roadway on either bank. Twisted steel covered the ground. Sean McLoughlin drove up to the scene on a side road. He still remembers the silence.

SEAN MCLOUGHLIN: There were no sirens. I couldn't hear - you know, I must have gotten there right after. I didn't see it go down, but I got there right after. And I kept thinking, doesn't anybody know about this? Isn't anybody going to come and help us?

WASTVEDT: McLoughlin was one of many who helped survivors out of stranded cars. Within minutes, emergency crews poured in from Minneapolis and nearby cities. Responders brought boats and diving equipment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED RESPONDER #1: You guys got gear and stuff?

UNIDENTIFIED RESPONDER #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED RESPONDER #3: Oh, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED RESPONDER #1: You can probably sneak up there. Come on.

WASTVEDT: In all, 13 people died in the collapse, and 145 were injured. Survivors suffered back injuries, brain injuries and other trauma. Several people contacted for this story declined to be interviewed, saying they still prefer not to discuss it. Chris Messerly is a lawyer who got to hear a lot of those stories when he represented survivors and victims' families in multiple lawsuits after the collapse. He says you didn't have to be on the bridge that day to be shaken.

CHRIS MESSERLY: A bridge should be safe. A bridge in America shouldn't just fall down. So to have a national and even a worldwide impact on how people feel about the safety of our infrastructure is a significant thing.

WASTVEDT: Even 10 years later, Kelly Kahle still gets anxious driving on bridges.

KAHLE: If you're stopped in rush hour and the conditions line up, I'm definitely like, I need to be in the left lane. I need to be closest to the middle because that's the part that won't flip over into the water. So I'm still - I still have those kind of if-this-fails scenarios. What's my exit strategy?

WASTVEDT: Following the collapse, the Minnesota Department of Transportation increased staff for bridge inspections and maintenance. More than a hundred bridges lacking key design redundancies were retrofitted or replaced. The Federal Highway Administration also revised its monitoring of state bridge inspections across the country. For NPR News, I'm Solvejg Wastvedt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANA OLGICA'S "SUGARCANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.