Noah Kunin was stark naked and ready to get in the shower when his apartment started to shake around 6 p.m. on Aug. 1.
The vibration reminded him of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake he experienced as a boy.
“It was like an aftershock of that,” said Kunin, 25, who initially thought the sensation came from construction jackhammers that had been hammering the nearby Interstate 35W bridge in recent days.
Then he stepped outside.
From the walk-out roof of his apartment at 1 19th Avenue S. Kunin saw the Interstate 35W bridge — about 20 feet away from his home — plunge into the river. He and his girlfriend didn’t think twice about what to do.
“You don’t even think. You don’t think,” Kunin said while standing on his roof days after the collapse. “My girlfriend immediately sprinted down these stairs, out this door over here, right down to the river to the sight. I slapped on clothes as fast as possible and started sprinting and followed her.”
Smoke from burning vehicles billowed throughout the scene, which was eerily quiet just after the collapse, Kunin said. Then he and about a dozen others at the scene got to work pulling people from the twisted concrete and steel wreckage.
“I firmly believe it’s instinct to run to crisis situations and help,” he said.
Survivors also joined in the recovery effort, until they were replaced with hundreds of rescuers from city and county agencies throughout the state.
“It’s amazing to see the responders we have,” said Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan.
Dolan said some of the rescue workers who initially responded had to swim into the river to get to the center of the bridge. He said it was a difficult, chaotic scene that required emergency personnel to climb over hanging slabs of concrete to reach victims. At least one rescuer was able to comfort a dying victim, he said.
“There’s an individual case where an individual was severely injured and was talking to medical personnel and was able to say his goodbyes to his family and he passed away,” Dolan said.
Among the first responders was Minneapolis firefighter Raul Ramos, of team Rescue 9.
Once at the site, Ramos said he put on a rubber “mustang suit” and started making his way through the river, out to the center section of the bridge. On his way, he spotted the rear end of a car sticking out of the water. He said he found a woman in the vehicle, pulled her out and brought her to shore with the help of a Minneapolis police officer. Ramos was told she had a pulse, but said he was uncertain if she survived.
He returned to the bridge, where he was involved in the rescue of about 15 other people. He said all of the agencies involved communicated and worked together well, enabling a quick rescue effort. But the site presented challenges, such as the current and unstable debris.
“We were worried about the shifting of the concrete or whatever else was going to happen… we were just wanting to get [survivors] out of there as soon as possible,” Ramos said.
Park Police Chief Brad Johnson arrived at West River Parkway just south of the collapsed bridge around 7 p.m.
By then, he said, all of the people there were told to get off the bridge because its structural integrity was still unknown and their mission was converting into a recovery, rather than a rescue, operation. Officers started assembling boats and equipment for the recovery work.
“It was chaotic,” Johnson said. “At that point, most of the ones getting off were needing assistance.”
He said people were exiting five or six cars located in the center of the bridge, a few of which were hanging off inclines. People in the roughest shape were exiting smashed cars where girders or freeway signs had fallen. Two park police officers conducted CPR on victims, one who did not survive.
Park police officers later focused on controlling the perimeter, and they continued to police the site last week in 12-hour shifts.
“A lot of people got real close, real fast,” Johnson said. “Initially we would see people right under the 10th Avenue Bridge, right where first responders needed to be.”
Johnson said he was amazed at the volume of cooperative aid that flooded in from other towns.
“In my 31 years, I haven’t seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again,” he said.
The rescue team was reduced to a couple dozen people by midnight, said Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack. Most of the rescuers at that time were technical specialists who knew how to get under collapsed buildings, he said. He said the crew would be kept small until officials knew what was safe and what wasn’t.
Clack said the procedures emergency personnel had in place helped everyone remain exceptionally well organized and coordinated throughout the disaster.
“The training and equipment we have gotten over the past six years since 9/11 has played a critical role in the success so far of this incident,” Clack said. “This has gone better than any large-scale incident I’ve been at.”
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek continued to lead a diving team last week that included personnel from Anoka and Washington Counties and elsewhere.
Stanek said diving crews were initially having trouble battling the river’s current and 1-2-foot visibility. The nine-foot river depth at the bridge was lowered a couple feet using the lock and dam system to aid the divers.
The crew used sonar equipment to locate underwater objects, which were searched by divers tethered to boats. At least one submerged vehicle from the bridge collapse was located the day after the collapse, but no bodies were found. Stanek said at that time that eight people were still believed missing. Five were confirmed dead as of Aug. 3.
Approximately 20 cars were estimated to still be in the river immediately after the collapse. About 60 were visible on the battered bridge, a section of which is just outside Kunin’s home.
Kunin said the collapse happened in seconds and his involvement in rescue efforts only lasted about 10 or 15 minutes, but it felt much longer.
He was evacuated from his home on the night of the collapse, but was allowed to return the following day, after going through a lot of red — and yellow — tape. The bridge itself was a huge part of Kunin’s life, he said. He biked under it every day and was accustomed to traffic and construction noise.
Sitting in the taped-off disaster scene, his home is quieter than it has ever been, he said, but everything else seems normal, until he looks out his window.
“I never thought this would ever happen here,” he said.