One bridge story

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Okay, so I was on the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis on Wednesday during rush hour.

I shouldn’t have been there, but I have a bad habit of chatting on my cell phone while driving, and, involved in conversation, I missed my exit. Decided to take University/4th Street instead—which put me bumper-to-bumper with a couple of hundred other souls encased in sheet metal on the ill-fated 500-foot span.

I was on my way to a Sample Circuit event at one of my favorite new venues, Spill the Wine, on Washington Avenue. Traffic was heavy coming into downtown because of the Twins vs KC Royals game, and I was running a few minutes late. Thank God.

Gail Miller Weber, who publishes the Twin Cities magazine Exploring T.O.S.C.A. (Theater, Opera, Shakespeare, Culture, Art), was to meet me at Spill the Wine at 6:00. She was running even later. (More praise heavenward.)

Sitting on the bridge about 1/3 of the way across, I felt vibrations but thought nothing of it. After all, this is construction season in Minnesota, and I could see that work was being done on the bridge. The right couple of lanes were blocked off by orange cones and cement-filled barrels.

Then the unnatural happened—the huge, green directional signs overhead went down. They fell away northward, frames and all, and I thought, “Where could that have landed? How can they allow such dangerous work during rush hour?” That’s how slow my brain was to comprehend the situation.

Then the big silver lightposts—the semaphores—toppled like toothpicks in every direction and the vibrations grew to a rumble. That frightened me. I knew something was terribly wrong, but what?

Suddenly people were running through traffic yelling, “Back up! Back up!” Obediently, we all stuck our arms out of the driver’s side windows and made “back up” motions as we inched toward dry land in reverse.

Now the people running past were shouting, “Keep going! The bridge is collapsing!” And then I heard it—a voice clearly instructing, “Turn around.” So I looked to my right and for the first time really noticed the empty construction lanes.

My heart was pounding. The digital clock on my dashboard read 6:08 p.m. Time of death, 6:08 p.m., I thought. I wonder if they’ll get that right on the death certificate. And then I began to manuever my SUV in a 10-point turn. Others, thankfully, heeded a call to turn around, as well.

We watched out for each other. No fender-benders. No wedging anyone in. We U-turned in synchronicity. On the unsteady pavement, we crept past the barrels of cement and the traffic cones and into the construction lane.

An urgently silent and focused parade, those of us who turned made our way toward the grassy embankment to the left of the entrance ramp, past drivers who’d been about to head north on the highway. I didn’t look at them. I only looked at the grass. I knew that once I felt grass under my tires, I’d be safe.

Bumping up onto Washington Avenue, I realized I had made it and checked my rear view mirror. Most of the bridge was gone. As I cleared the busy intersection and started to think about what just happened, my arms and legs began to shake. I gripped the steering wheel tighter, trying to keep my foot steady on the gas pedal, and pulled into the little parking lot behind Spill the Wine.

Only when I thought to turn the radio on, waiting for the valet, did reality sink in. The bridge had really collapsed. That’s why the signs and semaphors went down. That’s why I had seen the tops of several rows of cars disappear. The valet waited for me to get out of the car. I gave him money, left the radio on, and wobbled up to the door of the restaurant. I tried opening the door, but my arms felt weak, so I stood on the sidewalk, amidst the screaming sirens of emergency response vehicles, and, using my cell phone, called my mother.

I got a call back from the friend whose call I dropped while on the bridge, too. He sounded relieved when I answered. Then I thought to call my son Jonathan. He lives an hour out of the city, but a mother always worries—and the Twins were playing in the Metrodome nearby. Who knows? I thought. He could have come down for the game. I dialed him and his girlfriend. Neither answered. (In fact, I did not reach him until the afternoon of the following day. Can you imagine? But it turns out he is fine.)

As for me and bridges, everyone’s asking, “Are you nervous crossing bridges now? Will you avoid them in the future?”—and all I can say is, you’ve got to get back on the bicycle. If there is a time to be confident about crossing bridges, it’s now, when you can bet that any bridge that is unsafe will be closed or repaired, posthaste.

By the way, major kudos to Mayor R. T. Rybak, who demonstrates compassion and capable leadership under pressure, and whose city displayed such agility in responding to this latest emergency that I am all the more proud to live, work and play here.

Also, I am sure that I speak for everyone in the blogosphere when I say that our hearts go out to all who lost loved ones or haven’t yet heard about missing friends and relatives.