Crossing one bridge at a time

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Going back to work on the new 35W span helps this Carpenter move on from that fateful August night. A lot of construction workers want to work on rebuilding the Interstate 35W at St. Anthony Falls. Rob Bailey has more reasons than most.

Bailey was a member of the road crew that was resurfacing the bridge last Aug. 1 when it crumbled into the Mississippi River. One crew member died; others were seriously injured. “I knew I wanted to build this new one, no matter what,” Bailey says. “It means more to me. I’m not just earning a paycheck.”Rob Bailey, now a foreman for the new 35W bridge project:

Separated from crew

Rob Bailey, now a foreman for the new 35W bridge project: “I don’t live each day like it’s my last, but I don’t take anything for granted.”

Bailey, a member of Anoka Carpenters Local 851, was working for PCI last summer. He – like much of the overlay crew – was on break, gearing up for another shift that was supposed to last until 2 in the morning. He drove to a nearby Mobil station to load three coolers full of pop and Gatorade for the night ahead.

“I was usually with that cluster of guys,” he says. “I was a minute and a half from becoming a statistic.”

Bailey never heard or saw the bridge fall. His first hint of trouble was when he suddenly got stuck in traffic. He tried calling his foreman to say he’d be late getting back. “Little did I know there was nothing to come back to.” Then he heard the first news reports on the radio.

Bailey started calling co-workers on their cell phones. Nobody answered. “I can’t describe the rush that came over me. I thought I had lost 20 co-workers.”

He left his truck on Washington Ave. and ran toward the site. Police wouldn’t let him through.

Instead, a State Patrol officer pulled him aside and asked him to start listing his co-workers. Bailey says he was able to name 18 of the 22 people he thought were on the bridge. He thought he was creating a list of victims.
Heroic efforts go unheralded

It was 20 minutes before he saw his first co-worker from PCI climb up the embankment. Eventually, more filtered up. Some had fallen with the bridge into the river; others had scrambled down to lead rescue efforts. Two co-workers, Bailey says, pulled about a dozen people from the river before emergency personnel arrived. Some did so despite their own injuries. “A lot of guys got dinged up. A few guys suffered major injuries.”

Because the bridge crew was asked not to talk with media in the days after the collapse, they did not get the credit they deserve for their rescue efforts, Bailey says.

He singles out Jeff Ringate, a Laborer who fell 116 feet in a concrete buggy, was washed upstream, but climbed out, “came back to the bridge and started pulling people out,” Bailey says. Ringate, like Bailey, has returned to work on the new bridge.

“They didn’t think about their own lives; they just saved people. Guys did some heroic things, but they didn’t feel like heroes that night.”

Bailey says he still misses Greg Jolstad, a member of Operating Engineers Local 49, who was one of the 13 people killed in the catastrophe. “When you work 80 hours a week with someone, they’re like family. We were a tight group of guys.” He says he still stays in touch with Jolstad’s widow, Lisa.

Bailey knows how difficult it has been for him to recover even though he – unlike many co-workers –wasn’t physically injured. He didn’t actually experience or see the carnage.

“I’ve had a hard time. Sometimes, I have one of those days where it still hits me between the eyes. I still have little spells where it affects me.”

Work, counseling help

“I knew right way it was going to screw me up, play with my head. I didn’t sleep through the night till October.…

“I don’t beat myself up, but why was I spared? I ask ‘Why?’ all the time. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. So what’s the reason? To build the next bridge safer?”

Bailey did different things to help him adjust. He and crew members had group counseling sessions. He went for individual counseling through the TEAM benefit in the Carpenters contract. He took about 10 days off after the bridge collapse, then worked almost nonstop through October, because PCI had other road projects that needed to get done.

“Guys tried to act tough. But the fact is, we dodged a huge bullet. It’s something people will take with them the rest of their lives. We’ll be scarred for life, because you can’t erase that. Your brain is not programmed to let that stuff go.”
Hired as foreman on new bridge

Now, of course, he’s working on the new bridge. He was one of the first six Carpenters hired in the casting yard, and now is a foreman for Flatiron Manson, the new bridge’s general contractor.

“The best way I know to overcome things is to jump back on the horse. Right now, we’re working on land, but I want to do the whole thing.”

He also says it’s too early to say precisely how the experience has changed his life. “I don’t take life lightly. I don’t live each day like it’s my last, but I don’t take anything for granted.”


Michael Kuchta is communications coordinator for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. Reprinted with permission from North Country Carpenter magazine.