Are they paying respects or gawking? Why do we go to the bridge?
The viewing mound at Gold Medal Park was meant to be a restful spot overlooking the Mississippi River, the Stone Arch Bridge and the next-door blue of the Guthrie Theater. These days, it serves as a gathering spot for those memorializing people who died in the collapse of the I-35W bridge on Aug. 1.
A steady stream of people, many carrying cameras, climb the spiraling cement sidewalk, their foreheads shiny with sweat as they drop off flowers in the small cluster of trees atop the hill or look downstream at the ruins of the bridge.
Brightly colored plastic flags marked with inscriptions flutter in the breeze. “Much love to all lost and missing” is written on one. “We will rebuild and be stronger for it” is penned on another.
Mary Dunn came from Eagan with 10-year-old daughter, Jillian. “I needed some closure and to actually see [the bridge]. I brought my daughter along so she could experience life,” she said, pausing before adding, “and death.”
The bridge is “a big chunk of mortality right in your face,” Dunn added. Seeing it is “moving and somber.”
Barb and Paul Rogne drove to the park to see the fallen bridge for themselves after having seen it on TV. They said they think that the bridge erected to replace the one lying in pieces in the river should serve as a reminder of what happened last week.
“The [new] bridge should be a memorial,” Paul Rogne said. “Maybe every time you drive over the bridge, there’s something to remind you.”
Like so many people who live in the metro area, Barb Rogne said there’s a connection between her life and the lives that ended in the river. She said she’d driven across the I-35W bridge hundreds of times. “You take it for granted that the roads are going to work and that the bridges are going to work,” she said.
David Helgerson of Richfield carefully placed big handfuls of lavender gladiolas from his garden, some wrapped in a shiny blue ribbon, on the Gold Medal memorial.
“I picked all the flowers I had in my yard and brought them. It was a positive way to help bring maybe a smile or two to the family members who see that people do care.
“I figured this was good for me to help me deal with some of it, too,” he said.
Just a short distance away, another spot called to people who wanted to witness the devastation for themselves. Throngs of people walked across the Stone Arch Bridge to get a view of the disaster site. An ice cream vendor did brisk business from her cart on the bridge’s south end.
Many in the crowd carried binoculars or cameras. They leaned against the east railing and trained their lenses on the bridge, even though the view was distant and obstructed.
They passed several makeshift memorials as they walked across the bridge. Someone hung an American flag from the railing near the middle of the bridge and set flowers beside it.
Near the north end, Raleigh Dove and her mother, Clara Savitt, paused next to a cluster of bouquets and stuffed animals. A candle burned in the middle of them.
Savitt said she was on the verge of tears.
“It’s like going through a cemetery,” she said.
Dove said she flew in from Colorado on Saturday for a long-planned vacation in Minnesota and was visiting her mother and other relatives. On Sunday night, the University of Minnesota alumni visited the east bank of campus and got her first glimpse of the bridge collapse.
“I was shocked,” she said.
“I wanted to cross myself, but I’m not Catholic, so I didn’t,” she said. “But that was my reaction.”
A few blocks away, a sign hung on the University Avenue bridge over 35W seemed to rebuke those who would come to look on a disaster. From behind the yellow police tape, it read: “PLEASE STOP GAWKING — GO HOME — WATCH IT ON TV.”
Dove had a different take on the powerful draw of the disaster site.
“I think we’re drawn to confirm the reality of tragedies, to see it firsthand,” she said. “I’m amazed at the throngs of people, and the mood being so somber. … That’s striking.”
Later in the afternoon, Jennifer Toutges of Farmington and her son Isaiah, 7, stopped at the same spot on the Stone Arch Bridge. They sat down together on a ledge beneath the railing, bowed their heads and prayed.
A few moments later, they stood up. Toutges held her son with one hand and wiped tears from her eyes with the other hand.
“This could have been us,” she said.
She said she asked God “to watch over the families of the people who are still missing [and] to help with the recovery of the ones who have been injured.”
Isaiah said he prayed for the children who were rescued from a school bus that plunged with the bridge.
Toutges, too, described the mood of the crowd was somber and respectful. They were not there to gawk, she said.
“Everybody deserves the chance to come down here and show their respect for the families and the rescue workers,” she said. “The divers are under there working full-time every day. That’s a very hard job.
“I wouldn’t call it gawking, I would call it paying respect.”