Disaster victim #16: ‘Worst of the best’ 35W survivor tells her story


The pavement undulated in front of her.

“It was like it was moving in waves. My car swayed and started to feel unstable. Out my window I saw a construction worker on the bridge crouching down with a look of sheer panic on his face. I knew exactly what was happening,” said 31-year old Northeast resident Mercedes Gorden, whose hospital bracelet reads “Disaster victim #16.”

Gorden had left work downtown and was on her way to work out at a health club. She’d just gotten a raise and a promotion at her job at Best Buy, and was in a good mood. It was Aug. 1, and she was on the I-35W bridge. It was 6:05 p.m. The bridge, a major Twin Cities artery loaded with bumper to bumper traffic, was collapsing.

The car ahead of her made it off the bridge in time, but she was not so lucky. The road disappeared in front of her. “The bridge pulled away from solid ground and I caught air,” is how she put it. She and her car plunged 60 feet to the pavement.

“I was crying, ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ I felt angry, not afraid. I was thinking, ‘I’m too young. I have too much to do. This is not the way I want to go.’ It was very quick and I landed with a jolt on all four wheels. It wasn’t as hard or as scary as you would think. I bit my lips on the way down and that hurt. Then I started taking inventory of my body,” Gorden said.

Her arms were okay, she realized, looking at them; they were still gripping the wheel. She knew she hadn’t hit her head. “There was some debris on my blouse, and I was upset because I’d just bought it,” she said, smiling.

Then came the bad news. She could move her legs, but they were pinned. “My left leg twisted, at the very least. I tried to pull my seat back, but the lever was broken. I could recline the seat, but that didn’t get me anywhere. I didn’t know if I was cut or bleeding, I couldn’t see my legs. I got really scared and started yelling. I looked behind me and saw another crumpled up car, but I couldn’t see any people. All of a sudden, it was like a war zone. I heard sirens and helicopters.

“I was the first one to start yelling for help. Shortly after that, I heard a young woman calling to her mother, who was apparently unconscious. I was in tears, in shock, terrified. Was I bleeding to death? I thought, ‘God help us, let the rescuers get to us quickly enough.’ Then the pain started.”

Three good Samaritans, people who had come running from nearby apartments after the bridge collapse shook their buildings, got to her before the official rescuers, she said. A man named Mark asked if she was all right. She told him her legs were pinned. He opened her door, but realized it was futile to try and pull her out. A couple, Meagan O’Brien and Phil Moody, let her use Moody’s cell phone and she called her fiance, Jake Rudh, who had been home doing yard work, unaware of the bridge disaster.

It took a few seconds for him to realize, he said, that it was Gorden on the phone. He hadn’t recognized her high pitched, hysterical voice. When he sorted out what she was saying, he asked for details. Where was she? Was she hurt? How was she pinned?

“I said, ‘Stop, I can’t talk about that,'” Gorden said. “‘I need to hear that you love me and want to be with me and want to have kids with me. I don’t want to die.’ I told him he meant the world to me.”

Rudh said he could hear rescue workers shouting in the background, people screaming, helicopters. Gorden’s voice went away and someone else took the phone. “Meagan said she would find someone to call me as soon as they knew where they were taking Mercedes. I didn’t talk to Mercedes for five hours after that,” he said. “I was frantic. Neither of us has a cell phone, and they told me I couldn’t go down to the bridge. I was stuck at home, waiting for someone to call me. It was so frustrating.”

Gorden said, “I was so grateful to them for the phone. It could have been my last conversation with Jake. I asked Meagan not to leave me, and she got in my passenger side. She said, ‘I won’t leave you. Ever.’ She talked to me until the rescuers came, telling jokes and reciting poetry. I was overcome. I told her I loved her, that she’d be in my life forever.”

O’Brien did leave her for a brief time at one point. An injured woman behind them “started pulsing blood, it was coming out of her head,” Gorden said, and O’Brien ran back to her and pulled off her shirt so they could use it to stop the bleeding. She returned soon after to Gorden.

Firefighters and other rescuers arrived about half an hour after she’d crashed. They used the “jaws of life” to pry Gorden’s car apart, and set about extricating her. Gorden asked one, Minneapolis Firefighter Jackson Millikan from Station 11 in Southeast, to be gentle.

“He said, ‘Mercedes, I will do the best I can. But there are thousands of pounds of concrete hanging over our heads and they could fall at any minute. I’ll tell you right now it’s going to hurt.”

Gorden said he was telling the truth. “He pulled me out and it was absolute, torturous pain. I can’t even describe it.”

Rescuers put her on a stretcher and struggled to carry her up the gravelly embankment. Photos from the scene show her strapped to a body board. Her left foot is turned gruesomely away from her leg at least 60 degrees. At the top of the embankment, medics gave her a morphine drip. But there weren’t enough ambulances.

At that point, Gorden said, she became angry all over again. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, just get me the hell out of here, now!’ A lot of my strength came from anger. Another good Samaritan came forward and said they had a pickup truck. I was a top priority and they loaded me and another woman into the back of the truck. Every bump reached my foot.”

Gorden was taken to Fairview University Hospitals, where doctors told her she was the “worst of the best.” Rudh met her at the hospital and got to see her for five minutes before her surgery. “There was sand everywhere [from the embankment]; she was covered in it. The bottom of the bed was all blood. Her face was bright red and scraped from where the air bag hit her and her lip was all puffy. I told her how much I loved her. They took her away and I broke down,” he said.

In the emergency room, doctors rebroke her foot. It was the beginning of an excruciatingly long period of surgeries, physical therapy, narcotics and pain management for Gorden.

She stayed in the hospital for six weeks and has had six surgeries on her legs. At present, she has two plates inside her heels, as well as rods and about 25 screws and pins in her legs. Two scars run the length of her lower left leg.

She wears a TLSO (thoracolumbosacral orthosis), a full spinal brace, because her lowest vertebrae, the L1, was fractured. She can only take the cast off one hour a day for bathing, and can’t raise her body more than 30 degrees when it’s off. She had a blood transfusion and has endured a number of different pain medications, many of which didn’t work.

When Gorden arrived home in a wheelchair on Sept. 7, she saw, to her great excitement, the wheelchair ramp that her Northeast neighbors had built for her at the house she and Rudh have owned for four years. Rudh had told her about it and she’d seen it on television: the project had made television news while they were building it.

Waite Park neighbors Peter Huxmann, Dave and Jan Stark, Scott Claunch and Katie Wacek, Al Dees, Kevin Donohue, John Malich, and Kurt Wilson pitched in to build the deck. It took them a week. Another neighbor, Doug Rosenberg, said he hadn’t been able to work on the deck but he had brought the workers pizza. His 13-year old son Michael volunteered to cut their grass all summer.

Jan Stark said that many neighbors know Mercedes and Jake. “Mercedes is very outgoing. She has a lot of energy and she’s a strong person, delightful to know. They both are. We live in a wonderful neighborhood. It’s very tight knit and everybody helps everybody else in a crisis. I know Mercedes will do well in her recovery; when you’re a fighter, you make it.”

Stark said she and Dave had gone down to the fallen bridge side. “She went down on the north side of 35W, heading toward the university. You can see the brick wall where she landed. It was awful to see it and know that she’d been down there.”

There will be a fundraiser for Mercedes Gorden at the Fine Line Music Cafe on Saturday, Sept. 23, 6 p.m. Titled “Transmission Live! A Bridge Benefit for Mercedes Gorden,” it will include six local bands, a silent auction and presentations to the good Samaritans and rescue workers who helped save her.

Rudh, who is a disc jockey, said he has many contacts in the local music scene, and the response from people who want to help and participate has been incredible.

Information on the fund raiser, plus Gorden’s accident and recovery and photos of the disaster site, are available at howwastheshow.com/mercedesinfo and caringbridge.org/visit/mercedesgorden.

Thirteen people died in the Aug. 1 I-35W bridge disaster. Rudh said they estimate that at least 100 people were injured. “A lot of people walked away with scrapes and bruises. Many had compression fractures from the impact.” Gorden, he said, was one of the most seriously injured. “If this had happened 10 years ago, they’d have amputated her legs,” he said.

Gorden said she knows she has a lot of work to do toward her rehabilitation. “They give me an 85 to 95 percent chance that I’ll walk again,” she said. “I’ll probably be in a wheelchair for three or four months.” She said that in the future, she wants to speak out publicly on bridge safety, and be the voice for the victims. “This was a bridge already deemed to be unsafe. Not just one person is to blame, but someone has to take responsibility for it.”

Rudh and Gorden have been engaged for two years and plan to be married in October, 2008.

“I definitely want to be walking for that,” Gorden said.